Facility signifies progress in juvenile justice reform

Across the street from a small Baptist church and sandwiched between acres of soybeans and sugar cane, earth-moving equipment and scattered dirt piles serve as some of the few visual cues to one of the state’s most high-profile symbols of its juvenile justice reform efforts.

The site, on the southern edge of this small Avoyelles Parish town between Lafayette and Alexandria, featured more visitors than usual on Thursday, as state and local officials converged to celebrate the beginning phases of construction on Louisiana’s newest juvenile “secure care” facility. The term, coined as a euphemism for juvenile prisons, more accurately fits the description of the Acadiana Center for Youth than any previously built juvenile lockup, officials say, such as the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe, the Bridge City Center for Youth in New Orleans and the recently closed Jetson Center for Youth in Baker.

While Swanson and Bridge City have been partially redesigned to accommodate the state’s gradual shift to a model of therapeutic care from its previous corrections-focused standard, Dr. Mary Livers, deputy secretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice, said the Bunkie facility is the first of its kind that will be built under the more treatment-focused rehabilitation plan dubbed the Louisiana Model for Secure Care.

“Louisiana citizens should be very proud that we are moving forward,” Livers said. “And I think we are on the right track. Every day we get better at what we’re doing.”

Ever since the federal government declared Louisiana’s juvenile justice system one of the least effective, most dangerous juvenile corrections systems in the country in the early 2000s, state officials have been under the gun to make improvements. And so far, according to juvenile judges, state legislators and other youth advocates, progress undoubtedly has been made.

It’s the level of progress that remains ripe for disagreement.

Mark Steward, founder of the “Missouri Model,” a regionalized and treatment-based approach to juvenile rehabilitation in stark contrast with the adult corrections system, said Louisiana has made great strides in juvenile justice reform. In fact, he now recommends officials from states wanting to implement change to visit Louisiana, citing the state’s transformation as nothing short of monumental.

“They’ve really changed it from one of the worst to one of the very best,” Steward said.

Still, many youth advocates believe many more adjustments are necessary to meet the needs of disturbed young people.

“Statewide, the Louisiana Model, I think we are moving toward it,” said Judge Kathleen Stewart Richey, a juvenile court judge in East Baton Rouge Parish. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

A previously nonexistent focus on rehabilitative treatment has grown over the years, Richey said, and the success of some community-focused programs serving as alternatives to “secure care” have reflected the tremendous potential of regionalized, individualized treatment for youths who need help.

But programs intended to treat sexual offenders, substance abusers and mentally ill juveniles need more resources, Richey said, and the state must find a way to keep delinquent youths connected to their families.

Officials should keep working to develop alternative programs to secure care, the judge said, because community-based treatment is the key to rehabilitation. On the flip side, not all delinquents can be treated from home, she said, which is why the state must find the resources to properly fund secure care and nonsecure care programs alike.

“We just don’t have the facilities we need,” Richey said.

The Acadiana Center for Youth has been pegged as one such facility that has been in the works for years. After residents in Lafayette and Opelousas objected to housing the proposed facility, the state created a task force to find a home for the facility.

About a dozen communities wanted it. But it was Bunkie that eventually won over the task force.

“We’re glad this day is finally here,” the town’s mayor, Mike Robertson, said Thursday. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Robertson championed the efforts to house the facility in Bunkie, a town of roughly 4,000 people. The center has been touted as a major local economic development project.

“Our community will be changed forever because of this,” Robertson said.

The mayor expressed excitement over the opportunity for the town to play a role in molding the lives of troubled boys, a continuous project that many youth advocates say the state has worked hard to improve over the past decade.

“I think we’re a whole lot better now than we were 10 years ago,” said Judge Andrea Janzen, a juvenile judge in Jefferson Parish. “I’m actually quite encouraged.”

Janzen, who sat on the state’s task force to help choose the Acadiana Center for Youth’s location, said efforts in Jefferson Parish to beef up programs aimed at steering troubled youths away from secure care have been successful — so successful, in fact, that the parish has been able to funnel savings from the changes to further bolster a variety of “evidence-based” treatment programs.

“It’s not a soft-on-crime issue,” Janzen said. “It’s a smart-on-crime issue.”

State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, said the state has come “a long way” in improving its juvenile justice system, noting that an elevated level of awareness regarding the long-plagued system has helped spur positive change.

“There’s obviously still room for improvement,” said Broome, chairwoman of the state’s Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission, which was created in the early 2000s and still meets to discuss and recommend changes needed to improve statewide juvenile delinquent rehabilitation efforts. “But we are making progress toward embracing and implementing the therapeutic model.”

Some youth advocates say the change isn’t happening fast enough — largely because of the budget cuts under Gov. Bobby Jindal’s leadership.

Gina Womack, executive director of Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, said the state can’t cut funding for juvenile justice, particularly community-based programs, and then expect to properly treat juvenile delinquents. Plus, resource issues prevent the state from keeping adequate staffing levels at its secure care facilities, Womack said.

Josh Perry, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which merged with the former Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, said the organization’s clients tell them that staffing levels are not optimal at any of the state’s secure care facilities.

“We are aware of numerous instances in which a dorm was only staffed by one person,” Perry said.

Moreover, Perry questioned the state’s decision to build the new secure care facility in Bunkie, noting what he described as a growing body of evidence that suggests juvenile prisons do not reduce recidivism.

“They don’t keep us safer in the long run,” Perry said.

David Utter, co-founder of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana who now works for the Southern Poverty Law Center, expressed similar concerns.

“We’ve really learned a lot over the past 10 years,” Utter said. “The question is: Why do we put kids in these places at all?”

Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter, @_BenWallace.