Lacking space, Louisiana officials ask judges to release incarcerated youth early

By: - November 16, 2022 6:04 pm
Bridge City Center for Youth

Capacity at the Bridge City Center for Youth was reduced by one-third after escapes and riots at the facility. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

The Office of Juvenile Justice has asked judges to release people from its facilities as Louisiana runs out of space to put children and young adults in custody for committing crimes. 

“It is a day-to-day task to try to release a child from OJJ’s custody so we can receive a child,” Assistant Secretary Curtis Nelson said Wednesday. He spoke during a meeting of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission at the State Capitol. 

Nelson said the state juvenile justice system currently has 53 people awaiting a space in a secured facility, but no beds available for them. Group homes, used for young people who need less supervision, are also full. 

The capacity problems are exacerbated by the shuttering of a dormitory at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe, officials said. Young people destroyed the living quarters during a May 2021 riot, and repairs are expected to take as long as 18 months. 

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Gov. John Bel Edwards also cut the juvenile justice system’s prison bed count a few weeks ago. His action reduced the population of one of the state’s largest facilities, the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish, last month after coming under political pressure to shut it down entirely. Bridge City houses 28 young people, though its campus is big enough for 42 beds. 

Louisiana judges have also intensified the juvenile justice system’s capacity issue by issuing sentences that are too long, Nelson said.

“What our data shows us is that we have some children who should not be in OJJ’s custody,” he said. “So we looked at our numbers, we looked at our data, and we were really disturbed with what we found. I have children that have been in my care, in my custody, for three years for a nonviolent offense.” 

In East Baton Rouge and Orleans parishes, where there are dedicated juvenile justice courts, attorneys and judges are more likely to treat underage offenders differently than adults, but Nelson said judges in other parts of the state aren’t as forgiving. 

“Justice doesn’t look the same throughout the state,” Nelson said. “We can do more in the community to do diversion and to have alternatives. … I think there could be more money to go to the front end as opposed to the back end.”

Angola should be a wake-up call to the entire state of Louisiana. So what happened in our state that that became an option?

– Curtis Nelson, OJJ assistant secretary

Liz Ryan, an administrator with the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, agreed with Nelson, suggesting to the commission that Louisiana release more incarcerated youth to the community.  

“We recommend that OJJ implement programs that help youth with fewer than six months left on their custodial sentence transition or ‘step down’ from restrictive housing to less restrictive environments,” Ryan said.

Nelson said his agency has started pushing diversion programs more aggressively. It is launching an incarceration alternatives pilot program in Lafayette Parish, where a disproportionate number of young people are being pushed into correctional facilities.

Louisiana also considered partnering with an organization to transfer incarcerated youth to facilities outside the state.

“There was a serious conversation. Do we take our Louisiana kids and move them out of state?” Nelson said. “There was a lot of discussion about the price. It was going to be very costly to do it.” 

Nelson acknowledged the juvenile justice system is currently in crisis. He said the transfer of incarcerated youth to a building on the grounds of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the country’s largest maximum-security prison, should be taken as a sign of distress.

“Angola should be a wake-up call to the entire state of Louisiana,” Nelson said of the new juvenile justice facility he helped open at the adult prison. “So what happened in our state that that became an option?”

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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