Inside Report for July 9, 2013

La. juvenile system sets trend with revamp

Louisiana all too often serves as an example on matters that other states should never want to emulate.

No matter the subject — be it homicides, poverty, education, health or other quality-of-life issues — the Bayou State typically finds itself on the wrong end of the spectrum.

But Louisiana’s juvenile detention centers? Well, that’s another story.

A group of juvenile justice advocates has been working for years to improve how Louisiana deals with its juvenile offenders. Lawsuits and legislation led to improvements at the state’s three secure-care facilities.

Now, the local juvenile detention centers have come under increased regulation with the state’s first-ever licensing procedures, which went into effect July 1.

Until now, the 15 local juvenile detention centers in Louisiana — including those in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, New Orleans and Covington — operated autonomously and independent of one another, meaning facilities in one part of the state didn’t treat youth offenders the same way other detention centers did.

The process to bring about streamlined policies and procedures started about eight years ago. Then Hurricane Katrina struck, and like many other things in the state, the juvenile justice reforms took a back seat. That is, until about 2½ years ago, when the push for statewide reform reignited.

National juvenile justice advocates worked with local and state officials to develop standards in line with national standards that can be used as a model for other states.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a Chicago organization that assists various nonprofits, including those with a focus on juvenile justice reform, poured about $10 million in grant funds into the state’s efforts to create the new standards, teaming with the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and others.

The new policies touch on nearly every aspect of a juvenile offender’s life in a correctional facility — from the size of the rooms, access to mental health care and education, and the way offenders are treated by staff members.

The local facilities were given until July 1 to meet those standards, or request waivers for standards they couldn’t meet. The state Department of Children and Family Services granted licenses to all 15 detention centers, with some waivers on certain issues.

Mark Soler, executive director for the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in Washington D.C., said Louisiana officials have put in a “real investment of time and energy” during this process, and he hopes the work produces a system worth emulating by other states.

“It’s been a real cooperative partnership that really puts Louisiana on the cutting edge of juvenile detention facilities,” Soler said.

“We’ve been pleased with the whole arc of changes that have occurred,” said Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform for the MacArthur Foundation.

Soler said local officials, including those from the Louisiana Juvenile Detention Association, already have begun a dialogue with representatives in Mississippi, and Garduque said the two states can help push for further reform throughout the Gulf Coast.

It’s not often that Louisiana and Mississippi are states that others can look toward as trendsetters, but the case of juvenile justice reform shows that even the least-likely candidates, with the right leadership and effort, can at times serve as a shining example.

Bret H. McCormick covers local government and schools for The Advocate’s River Parishes Bureau. He can be reached at bmccormick@theadvocate.com.