The state Office of Juvenile Justice expanded its contract with the law firm Butler Snow to represent the agency in a litigation related to the opening of a juvenile facility at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.(Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)
Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has agreed to pay private attorneys hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend his plan to house incarcerated youth at one of the country’s largest maximum-security prisons for adults.
The Office of Juvenile Justice initially hired Butler Snow LLP in 2020 for $500,000 to represent the agency in lawsuits over the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, it expanded that contract to cover litigation related to the opening of a juvenile facility at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The law firm could make up to an additional $415,000 to defend the relocation.
Butler Snow lawyers are charging the state $220 to $285 per hour, and their contract expires in May, according to a copy of it received through a public records request.
Bolstered by civil rights attorneys, three incarcerated teenagers have sued the Edwards administration over the juvenile facility at Angola. Their lawyers argue an adult prison is an inappropriate setting for incarcerated young people.
Juvenile justice facilities are supposed to be therapeutic, and not punitive like adult prisons, they said. The attorneys allege moving youth to Angola is detrimental to the young people’s mental health. It could also interfere with the special education services for their clients.
The Edwards administration contends it was necessary to put a small group of young people at Angola because the state has run out of other options for housing them. Over the past two years, incarcerated youth have attacked staff, destroyed property and broken out of Louisiana’s juvenile justice facilities.
Officials believe the Angola site might help juvenile justice officials regain control over the young people because it is more secure than existing juvenile justice facilities. They also insist the young people at Angola have access to education and therapeutic services they would receive elsewhere.
So far, the federal court has tentatively sided with the Edwards administration. U.S. Judge Shelly Dick declined to block the juvenile justice facility at Angola from opening this fall, but litigation in the case is ongoing.
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More juveniles could join lawsuit
Earlier this month, the civil rights attorneys told the court they had picked up more clients, including four teenagers housed at Angola who are possibly interested in joining the lawsuit.
Setting up the juvenile site at Angola has been expensive. On top of the $415,000 it could potentially spend on legal fees, the state also shelled out $550,000 to convert an old prison building into one appropriate for juvenile justice.
The number of incarcerated youth being held at Angola is also small. Of the approximately 365 young people in secure care, only seven or eight have been sent to the Angola site at one time since it opened in October.
Child welfare advocates say the money spent on legal fees and building renovations could be put to better use. The funds should be used to support community programs that prevent children from having to go into state custody in the first place.
“It’s just disappointing that the governor would rather spend this money on litigation than spend it on supporting these children and families,” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, co-executive director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.
Contract revisits Edwards-Landry rift
Butler Snow has been working on the Angola site lawsuit for months, and the law firm will be paid retroactively for its work. Its contract is backdated to Aug. 22, even though it wasn’t signed by a Butler Snow representative until Nov. 15.
It’s not clear why it took so long for this legal contract to be put in place. The Office of Juvenile Justice has not responded to questions sent to its communications office over the past week.
Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office may be responsible for some of the delay. The Office of Juvenile Justice’s general counsel Angelic Keller said in a November email that Landry’s office had made a “note of correction” to the contract that required it to be resent to all the parties involved before it was finished.
One portion of the contract concerns the attorney general’s office directly. It forbids Butler Snow attorneys from entering into a consent decree or another type of settlement agreement unless Landry has given “prior written approval” to do so.
AG wary of consent decrees
Landry’s office did not respond to several phone calls and emails about the contract, but the attorney general typically opposes settlements, such as consent decrees, that give the federal government more control over state or local government operations.
These settlements are probably best known for being used to resolve allegations of civil rights violations by law enforcement organizations. They typically lay out a set of mutually agreed-upon expectations for improvement which the entity must meet. The New Orleans Police Department has been governed by a consent decree since 2012, and the Office of Juvenile Justice was subject to one in the early 2000s.
These types of arrangements are supposed to prevent state agencies from breaking the law, but they can also cause state officials to lose control over their own budget. They often involve outside monitoring by a judge, who then has the power to tell the state or local authorities what type of programs they have to put in place, regardless of cost.
“We don’t think consent decrees, as a policy matter, do us any favors on the state side,” said Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill, the top deputy in Landry’s office, in an interview last year.
Attorneys for Butler Snow would not be able to sign off on such a settlement without consulting their clients, including the governor, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Landry might be afraid Edwards enter a settlement without consulting the attorney general first. Landry and Edwards don’t get along and don’t share the same legal philosophy.
The portion of the Butler Snow contract that speaks to the authority of the attorney general also asserts that state agencies cannot be sued in federal court unless they agree to it.
“[T]he Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution bars all individuals from suing an unconsenting state in federal court,” reads the Butler Snow contract.
Technically, there are restrictions on lawsuits brought against state government agencies. Individuals must sue specific state officials, like the governor, rather than the agency as a whole.
Lawsuits brought against state agencies in federal court are also unlikely to result in financial compensation for the plaintiff. Instead, the plaintiffs are often hoping for changes in the agency’s policies and practices, attorneys interviewed for this story said.
Officials who run state agencies can be sued, in spite of restrictions imposed by the U.S. Constitution, said Caprice Roberts, a professor at LSU’s law school. Just last month, a federal judge ruled Louisiana prison officials had violated the constitutional rights of incarcerated people at David Wade Correctional Center in North Louisiana.
“[The contract] says, ‘We can’t be sued unless we consent.’ It’s definitely not as simple as that,” Roberts said.
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