From January 2022 to May 11, 2023, Iberville Parish sheriff’s deputies arrested 145 juveniles. Sheriff Brett Stassi had nowhere to put them.
“There is no juvenile detention facility in our area,” Stassi said. “Our hands are tied with what we can really do with them.”
First, the sheriff’s office contacts a parent or guardian, then it works with them and the district attorney to determine whether the juvenile — those 10 to 17 years old — will be incarcerated. Then, they look for a place to house the juveniles for 72 hours until their hearing. Most of the time that’s in Mississippi or Alabama.
“We have to get a court order to transport across state lines, and it’s about a six-hour drive round trip,” Stassi said.
A deputy makes the trip twice in 72 hours, something sheriffs in Iberville, Pointe Coupee and West Baton Rouge say is a waste of time and money. Bed space also is expensive. Chris Conaway, head of the juvenile division at the West Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, said that office is currently holding someone in Jones County, Mississippi, at the rate of $1,900 per week.
The juvenile detention facility in Lafayette often is full. The Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center in Tangipahoa Parish accepts only youths from certain parishes.
“The problem is they’re all full and they don’t want our juveniles,” said 18th Judicial District Attorney Tony Clayton. “They have their own problems and are filled to capacity. This problem is systemic to these particular locales.”
The Office of Juvenile Justice runs detention facilities in Baton Rouge and elsewhere, but juveniles are not sent to those until they are adjudicated.
Juvenile jails vs. adult jails
Clayton, Stassi, West Baton Rouge Sheriff Mike Cazes and Pointe Coupee Sheriff Rene Thibodeaux all want a detention facility built on the westside, but getting that done is not an easy task. Juvenile detention centers require different services and staff than adult jails, such as teachers and mental health experts.
“To build a facility, it has to be federally compliant,” Clayton said. “You’re gonna need doctors, several psychiatrists, you have to have recreational and educational facilities, and all the while you have to build a facility that can contain them.”
Conoway said the resources mandated at juvenile jails are important.
“These kids have to continue their education. They’ve got to have the resources to deal with the mental aspect,” he said. “I tell people all the time, you can fix any kid, but if you put that kid back in the same environment, you’re not gonna win.”
Clayton estimates it would cost $15 million to $20 million to build a facility, plus ongoing operational costs.
“The fact that the feds have brought these excruciating restrictions on us means we have to put forth more money so we can house these juveniles, particularly the violent ones, so we can educate them and allow them to assimilate back into society,” he said.
The debate over who should fund such a facility has kept one from opening.
Stassi said one option is for Iberville, Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge, and East and West Feliciana to partner on a facility that each parish can use, and rent out extra beds to other parishes. But that would still require taxpayer dollars.
“The cost of the thing and what it would cost daily to provide doctors, teachers, facilities and workers, is a monumental deal. That’s why these places are so few and far between,” he said.
Thibodeaux, in Pointe Coupee, said he views it as a state issue.
“How would you get all these parishes today to all agree on a tax, and pass it parish by parish? That’s almost impossible. The reality of the situation for me is for the state to provide a facility,” he said.
Clayton said he has spoken with lawmakers, but so far has gotten nowhere.
“We’re going to have to put our heads together and find a way to deal with the issue once and for all. Until the state Legislature deals with this, I don’t know what we will do, keep kicking the can down the road,” he said.
Republican Sen. Caleb Kleinpeter, who Clayton has pushed on the issue, said he agrees building a detention center is the state’s responsibility.
“As of now there’s nothing in the budget, but it is on my radar to secure funds,” he said.
Clayton said his goal is not to build an institution, but a detention center that serves as an educational facility.
“I’m telling you, if you educate that kid, you will not see him in the criminal justice system,” he said.
Alternatives to detention
Kristen Rome, co-executive director at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said education is important, but it doesn’t have to happen in a juvenile detention facility. Resorting to detention is, she said, “a very lazy way of approaching public safety,” and often juveniles don’t need to be detained at all.
“We often see children being detained who shouldn’t necessarily be detained and could receive an alternative, and if judges used more discretion, then the detention centers would have more space,” she said.
Last year, the Office of Juvenile Justice sent a letter to juvenile court judges asking them to release juvenile offenders on parole.
“OJJ was at capacity and made the assertion that these children don’t all need to be in secure care; the judges were sending too many people,” Rome said.
She said focusing on alternatives like community-based programs that address children’s needs, or using ankle monitors and evening reporting centers would be a better use of resources. She’s not the only one.
“Research shows that locking up kids doesn’t work,” the Office of Juvenile Justice said in a news release in 2022. “This money is better spent on community-based alternatives, which are safer and more effective and offer youth the tools they need to grow into responsible citizens.”
Raise the Age Act
The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights was a major advocate for the Raise the Age Act, which took full effect in 2020 and includes all 17-year-olds in the juvenile system regardless of charge.
Clayton called it “one of the worst moves they could have made,” and Conoway said raising the age has increased crime.
“Raising the age has been a bad thing, because these kids learn quick that if they commit certain crimes, they’re still gonna be a juvenile,” he said.
Rome argued that 17-year-olds are still children.
“They can’t vote, they can’t purchase cigarettes, buy alcohol, rent cars — any of the things that we as a society have said require adult decision making,” she said. “Seventeen-year-olds are children regardless of what folks might feel.”
Because Raise the Age legislation is so new, there is not yet data for how it has played out. Sheriffs say there has been an increase in crime, but there is no statewide data to prove that.
Kleinpeter said he was a “firm believer” in lowering the age.
“These kids are committing crime because they know they can,” he said.
But Rome said 46 other states have figured out a way to make the age limit work.
“What does that say about us as Louisiana if we are so far from getting this right? There are sheriffs in other states who understand how to get this right, how to resource this, how to respond to children’s needs in a way that continues to protect communities,” she said. “If we could incarcerate ourselves out of this issue, Louisiana would be the safest place in the world. It’s incumbent upon us to stop being reactionary and start actually looking at the data and creating solutions that work.”
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