Bill following Jetson’s closure fails

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD --  The Office of Juvenile Justice moved 78 youths at the Jetson Center for Youth in the middle of the night earlier this year to two other facilities in Monroe and New Orleans. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- The Office of Juvenile Justice moved 78 youths at the Jetson Center for Youth in the middle of the night earlier this year to two other facilities in Monroe and New Orleans.

A bill filed in response to the unexpected, overnight shuttering of the Jetson Center for Youth in Baker is effectively dead in the Louisiana Capitol.

State Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, had filed legislation that — in its original form — would have required legislative approval of anything that would lead to the loss of at least 100 state worker jobs. House Bill 858 had already been weakened to a version that required only legislative notification, but the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee voted to defer action Wednesday — a sign of death in the final week of the 2014 session.

Barrow said she was disappointed at her bill’s end. She wasn’t aware that Jetson had closed until she read it in the news and said she felt unprepared for constituents’ questions about it.

“I really thought the bill had been amended to the point that it would be comfortable for everyone,” Barrow said.

Jetson wasn’t in Barrow’s district, but she said some of her constituents worked at the juvenile facility.

“That was a horrible incident,” Barrow said. “We had no knowledge they were going to be laid off.”

Jetson employed about 154 employees before its closure, and it was home to 76 youth offenders.

The head of the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice has said that the agency chose not to tell employees the plans for Jetson until the night of its closure to maintain security and make sure enough employees would still come to work.

“The agency plan for the relocation required knowledge of the matter to be known only by the executive team at Central Office as a primary concern was the need to maintain staff at the facility until the relocation took place,” Office of Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary Mary Livers wrote in a letter to the state Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission more than a week after the move.

Between midnight and 2 a.m., the 65-year-old state juvenile facility’s inmates were whisked away to other youth offender sites.

Barrow said the employees were told they could take jobs at one of two other facilities that students were bussed to — Bridge City Center in New Orleans and Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe.

“They could choose to go to one of the two places, and if they didn’t, then they lost their job,” she said, noting that the option would have meant a move for families in the middle of a school year.

The Senate committee briefly questioned Barrow about the bill before voting to defer it.

HB858, in its neutered form, passed the House 95-0 last month.

Under it, legislators would be given five days’ notice of any action to eliminate 100 or more state jobs. Originally, Barrow wanted to require legislative approval “either by law or by concurrent resolution” for such an action.

Barrow said she felt that the legislation’s goal, as amended, was to strengthen leadership and knowledge among lawmakers.

“We should be notified. To me, that’s leadership,” she said.

Nearly four months since its closure, officials have begun talks of replacing the aging Jetson facility with a new juvenile justice facility.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .