The 15 juvenile detention centers across the state are working to meet new state regulations that go into effect next summer and are expected to bring better education and health care to jailed teenagers.
It also will be the first time these local detention centers will be licensed by the state. The Department of Children and Family Services will be the licensing agency.
State legislators passed a law during the last session giving those operating the detention centers an additional six months, or until July 1, to meet the new licensing requirements.
The state’s 15 juvenile detention centers can hold as few as 10 juveniles to more than 90. These short-term facilities house youth who are awaiting court dates, placement in a group home or an opening in one of the state’s three secure care facilities overseen by the state Office of Juvenile Justice.
The process of building a new baseline for operations at the detention centers, which are run by private entities as well as parish or city governments, started in earnest about three years ago, said Dane Bolin, the director of the Office of Juvenile Justice Services in Calcasieu Parish and the head of the Louisiana Juvenile Detention Association.
Bolin said the Louisiana Juvenile Detention Association received a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which supports juvenile justice reform across the country, to help train detention center employees and DCFS officials for the new regulations.
The grant funds were used not only to design the new standards, but also to bring in national experts to assist in the process, Bolin said.
“Now we’ve become a model across the country,” he said. “They are very good standards, and that’s what we wanted. We did not want something that did not make us raise the bar in how we house our kids in the state and local detention centers.”
The biggest changes, Bolin said, pertain to educational requirements at the detention centers as well as increased mental health and medical screening for juveniles.
In addition, he said, the centers will have less autonomy and “a lot more oversight” from the state.
“In those areas it is going to raise the bar on how we provide services to our kids in the state, which is not a bad thing,” Bolin said.
Suzy Sonnier, who took over as head of DCFS in June, said her department is going full bore to make sure the detention centers meet all of the regulations on deadline.
“Our goal is to ensure that all of the facilities are ready to be licensed and certainly meet all of the regulations,” Sonnier said. “We are in the process of going out and doing initial consults with these facilities.”
Sonnier said the plan was to make an initial consultation and evaluation of the 15 facilities by the end of September.
The facilities will have follow-up visits before the end of the year, and then unannounced inspections starting in January.
All of the visits are designed to make sure the detention centers can meet licensing regulations by July.
Sonnier said she’s not sure what will happen if any of the detention facilities fail to meet the new regulations, though there is a waiver process that has been built in to resolve certain issues.
Sonnier admitted there might be some “difficulty” retrofitting existing detention centers to meet the regulations.
“My sincere hope is that all of the 15 facilities are ready for July 1,” she said. “That’s why we’re going out now. That’s why we’re going out later in the year.”
Although most of the detention centers in the state have been working for a couple of years to meet the new requirements, others have been involved in the process even longer.
Deron Patin, the director of the Baton Rouge Juvenile Services Center, said that facility was one of five in the state chosen in 2006 to participate in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Reform Initiative, which he described as “very close in design” to the new state rules.
The facilities in Baton Rouge as well as the other four Casey Foundation sites in Calcasieu, Caddo, Orleans and Jefferson parishes had a jump-start on the other 10 centers in the state, Patin said, but they still have had to make adjustments.
“We’re doing a lot of policy modification, reviewing some of the activities and procedures in our facility to make sure they do meet those standards,” Patin said.
Gail Grover, the director of the Department of Juvenile Services for East Baton Rouge Parish, said there “may be some tweaking” to the regulations in the future, but she doesn’t have a problem with them.
“It was a thorough process to try to touch each area of detention function,” she said. “I feel confident that each area was given attention.”
She said her goal has been for the Baton Rouge detention center to comply with the legislative mandate and create “a pretty good product that’s going to protect our youth.”
“This is a process that was not driven by any other group but the administrators of the facilities,” Bolin said. “It’s not that the administrators were forced to do this. It’s been a common goal for many years. They all understand the need to have oversight and to improve the conditions.”
But the process hasn’t been without its critics. State Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, was one of the authors of the 2012 legislation that gave the detention centers an additional six months to meet the regulations. Now he has said he plans to revisit the legislation again during next year’s session.
Brown said his biggest concerns are the short timeframe — he said it would have been better if the facilities had years, not months, to meet the regulations — and the cost of retro-fitting some of the older detention centers.
“Overall, the regulations have been causing a negative impact on a lot of our facilities statewide,” Brown said.
Brown said he has heard complaints from all over the state, and he plans to try and push implementation of the new regulations back two years.
The new requirements for increasing ceiling heights, door sizes, window sizes and other changes that need to be made are unnecessary for older facilities, Brown said. The older detention centers should not be forced to make the expensive renovations, he said. Instead, he said, they should be “grandfathered” in under the new rules.
He said the older facilities, like older homes, might not meet the current codes, but it doesn’t mean they can’t still function.
If the state isn’t going to grandfather in those older facilities, he said, it should at least share in some of the costs for retro-fitting.
“It’s not fair to the facilities,” Brown said.
Like the adult prison system in Louisiana, Brown said the juvenile justice system is in need of a complete transformation. However, that’s a project that might be too big and too costly to ever tackle, he said.
Despite Brown’s criticisms and his promise that the state Legislature will once again look into juvenile justice reform in 2013, Bolin and Sonnier both said the end goal remains the same — to improve the system and bring much-needed accountability.
“All this does is hold us more accountable,” Bolin said.
“I really don’t know what the future will hold. … I truly don’t,” Sonnier said. “I think we all want to ensure that the children in those facilities are taken care of.”