Mayor to ask to cut juvenile judges to 3

Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Tuesday said he will ask the state Legislature this session to reduce from six to three the number of juvenile court judges in Orleans Parish, something that came as a surprise to those on the bench.

Speaking at the ground-breaking ceremony for the city’s new juvenile justice complex, Chief Juvenile Court Judge Ernestine Gray said she learned for the first time on Monday that the campus’ courthouse will have space for only four judges.

Landrieu has said he wants to see the number of judges in the city reduced since a state Supreme Court analysis and city-commissioned study found that New Orleans’ courts are bloated and that judges face light loads.

“I guess there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The mayor is talking about reducing the number of judges, and this is one way maybe this will happen,” Gray said of the smaller-than-expected space. “I would have hoped that I would have gotten — we would have gotten — notification of this before today and then asked to speak.”

The state Legislature sets the number of judges in each court and would have to approve any reduction during the upcoming session.

Landrieu told reporters after the press conference that the judicial system was designed piecemeal over the years and that each court goes to the City Council every year during budget hearings and asks for more money.

“The city can’t keep wasting money and overspending on things we can do for less, and this is one of those areas,” Landrieu said.

Last year the council adopted a $2.6 million budget for the juvenile courts for 2013, a 30 percent reduction from its $3.7 million budget in 2012.

That drop resulted in the court laying off 31 people.

Despite the looming cuts to the judiciary, Gray said the facility is necessary to ensure the city’s juvenile justice program functions properly, with all aspects in one location.

The Juvenile Justice Complex’s 11.7-acre site on Bayou St. John just north of Interstate 610 in Gentilly will cost $32 million and include space for the Youth Study Center, which is the city’s juvenile jail, and a courthouse with space for public defenders and employees of the District Attorney’s Office.

The entire operation of juvenile court will vacate its current home in the Civil Courts building next to City Hall and relocate to the new facility.

The new Youth Study Center was necessary to not only replace the former building that was damaged during Hurricane Katrina but comply with a federal consent decree.

The decree stemmed from a lawsuit the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana filed against the city in 2007.

The lawsuit complained about unconstitutional conditions at the facility, and the decree spelled out improvements that were necessary in staffing, building safety, use of shackles, food, medical services and eventually a new building, among other issues.

“We have come so far,” Dana Kaplan, the JJPL’s executive director, said Tuesday. “I want to applaud this moment we are at today.”

Landrieu shared those thoughts, noting that the new facility with all juvenile justice components in one place will mean better services for all involved parties.

“The nation will soon look to this facility as the new standard for juvenile justice,” he said.