Trending Topics

How should Louisiana fix its juvenile jails? Pay staff more money, panel says

That turmoil reached a fever pitch last summer when a SWAT team had to intervene after 20 youths took over parts of the Bridge City Center for Youth, the same day five juveniles escaped from that facility by cutting a hole in the floor

Bridge City Center for Youth Louisiana.png

Google Maps

By Meghan Friedmann
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — If Louisiana wants to fix its juvenile detention centers — which in recent years have made headlines for riots, escapes and violence — it needs to pay staff better wages, according to a new set of recommendations from the Office of Juvenile Justice.

The state should also create a facility that would assess young offenders to establish individualized treatment plans before they are placed in longer-term OJJ custody. And the broader juvenile justice system could be bettered, OJJ suggested, if judges and attorneys involved in cases received special legal training.

OJJ Deputy Secretary Otha “Curtis” Nelson Jr . on Tuesday presented those requests to the Legislature’s Juvenile Justice Facility Standards Task Force.

Established through a bipartisan Senate resolution, that panel came together to respond to recent turmoil within the state’s juvenile facilities.

That turmoil reached a fever pitch last summer, when a SWAT team had to intervene after 20 youth took over parts of the Bridge City Center for Youth, the same day five juveniles escaped from that state-run secure care facility by cutting a hole in the floor.

That same week, a separate brawl took place at the Monroe -based Swanson Center for Youth. In the wake of those events, officials made a controversial decision to move about two dozen youth to a temporary high-security unit at the State Penitentiary at Angola. Advocates later decried housing conditions there.

A year later, reports about violence and escapes, such as recent incidents in Monroe and Bunkie, still trickle in.

The COVID-19 pandemic and staffing shortages exacerbated problems in OJJ facilities, Nelson told the state panel on Tuesday. Though staffing levels have improved, it is difficult for the OJJ to compete with rising wages in other industries, he said.

He asked legislators to consider raising the rate of pay for staff across the board.

“It takes a lot to actually run a (juvenile justice facility),” he said. “In order to do it correctly you have to pay staff a wage that they can actually live off of.”

Nelson also asked for a new state mandate that judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys receive training on the Louisiana’s Children’s Code.

Courts order many children to stay in OJJ care longer than necessary, Nelson said. He believes that practice violates the code, which holds “that the role of the state in the family is limited and should only be asserted when there is a serious threat to the family, the parents, or the child.”

Task force members said freeing up bed space would allow youth facilities to make better use of their resources.

“If you just get the kids who don’t need to be there out of there, that relieves the pressure on the personnel in the facilities,” said Richard Pittman, a representative from the Louisiana Public Defender Board.

The report’s final recommendation asked the state to change the system by which it assesses the needs of the youth in OJJ custody. Before youth are placed in their care facility, they should go to a diagnostic assessment facility, which would come up with individualized treatment plans, Nelson said.

He described two ways for the state to achieve that goal. He said current Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has endorsed a plan to build a juvenile reception and diagnostic center in Baker.

But if incoming Gov. Jeff Landry does not wish to go forward with that proposal, Nelson said the OJJ may be able to establish such a center at the Swanson Center for Youth, where a new 72-bed unit is underway and another unit is being renovated.

The task force has not formally adopted any recommendations, according to Sen. Beth Mizell, R- Franklinton, who chairs the panel. In a statement Thursday, she said the task force is combining the recommendations it received from presenters and reviewing feedback from members before it releases its report.


(c)2023 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
Visit The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate at
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.