Juvenile offenders studied

Louisiana jails a higher percentage of youthful inmates with mental health needs than most other states, according to a study released Thursday.

“We don’t do a very good job of keeping our mentally ill kids out of the juvenile justice system,” Debra DePrato, director at the Institute for Public Health and Justice at the LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans, told a conference looking at how juveniles who commit crimes are handled in Louisiana.

“In fact, as many of you know, we sometimes send them there (courts) on purpose, hoping that they’ll be ordered into services and that’s not really a very good reason,” DePrato said.

East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Court Judge Kathleen Richey agreed, saying after the presentation: “Often the first formal evaluation is the result of a court order.”

Richey was among the roughly 130 juvenile justice professionals attending workshops and seminars surrounding the unveiling of the analysis from which legislators will base their bills in upcoming legislative sessions.

The findings are part of a wide-ranging report, called “Sustaining Juvenile Justice System Reform,” that assesses the various programs and procedures across the state and recommends improvements. The study was performed for the state Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission and was ordered by the Louisiana Legislature in June 2011.

The numbers showed that 74 percent of the youngsters incarcerated in Louisiana’s detention and secure care facilities have some kind of diagnosable mental health malady, which is a rate that is higher than other states, according to the report. The statistics show that while the total numbers are less than in states like Texas and Washington, there is a higher percentage of incarcerated youth in Louisiana in each of several mental health disorder categories.

“Many of these youth have disorders that are considered severe and debilitating – 37 percent — and/or have multiple mental health disorders — 62 percent,” according to the report.

Youth with mental health issues linked to bad behavior can be treated in the community far more successfully and at less cost than sending the offenders to juvenile detention facilities, said Gail Grover, director of the Department of Juvenile Services for East Baton Rouge Parish.

Typical services provided to a youth diagnosed with mental health problems, include traditional focused individual, group or family therapy; medications and medication management services, said Grover, who also attended the presentation. Offenders can receive those services outside prison and avoid being incarcerated, she said.

Youngsters whose offenses are relatively minor should not be incarcerated with dangerous, often predatory offenders, she said. “The likelihood that kid would return to the criminal justice system is much higher. The outcomes are not good, that’s what the statistics show,” Grover said.

State Sen. Sharon Broome, a sponsor of the legislation ordering the analysis, said Louisiana has made a lot of strides from the days when all juvenile offenders were sent to what basically amounts to adult-like prisons, regardless of the severity of their crime. Populations in the four state “secure custody” facilities have decreased by 72 percent since 2000, the study found.

Juvenile justice professionals are trying to find the right mix of programs that confine violent offenders, but use lower costing treatment that diverts less dangerous youngsters from a cycle that leads to a lifetime of crime, she said. “But, we’re still evolving as it relates to the therapeutic model,” said Broome, D-Baton Rouge, adding that she needed to study the report before considering the legislation she would pursue.

“We needed to dig down and see where we are,” LSU’s DePrato said, adding that the analysis found that jurisdictions here and there had good programs. “We have pockets of reform but we need to spread that to the whole state.”

Other participants raised the fear that funding would be cut.

David W. Burton, an assistant district attorney in Beauregard Parish, said that specific juvenile justice programs are easy targets during a time when state government cuts budgets.

“This system that we have worked so long and hard to develop,” Burton said, “can fall apart if we allow those who will make these decisions to take different legs of the system away from us.”

Frank Neuner, of the Louisiana Indigent Defenders Board, agreed.

“This is an area of the criminal justice system where a little funding can go a long way,” said Neuner, of Lafayette. “If we invest a little money in the juvenile justice system, it’ll save a lot money in the long run.”