Gov. Edwards, lawmakers must commit to true youth justice reform

April 10, 2023 3:00 pm
Bridge City Center for Youth damage

Residents of the Bridge City Center for Youth caused this damage to the facility, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice. State officials shared these photos with state senators during a hearing in April 2022.

On the heels of multiple civil rights groups — including one I am a part of — banding together to demand the U.S. Department of Education look into the confinement of youth in Angola, it’s my duty as a pastor to speak out about the nightmare these children and their families are facing. 

Last year, I was shocked to learn that Gov. John Bel Edwards, a man of faith, was sending children to an adult prison. Then, I was even more disturbed when my fellow faith leaders and the larger Louisiana community stayed silent. Beyond faith, and no matter one’s religion or beliefs, we all have a responsibility for the children in our community and making sure they’re reared so that they go in the right direction. 

Have many people sat down and thought about how this would hurt youth and their families, and maybe even prayed about it? Did the governor? 

Most importantly, are we truly understanding that these are children — with young, impressionable minds more vulnerable to their environments and circumstances? 

Looking at it scientifically, we know that a young person’s brain isn’t fully developed until 25 years old. So, if we want to rehabilitate our youth, we have to put them in a healthy and rehabilitative environment. We have to give them job and education opportunities and positive activities. A lot of times, they don’t have a positive environment in their home or community, and that’s why they get into trouble in the first place. 

In the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers should recommit to a holistic plan instead of putting forth piecemeal approaches that simply don’t work.

We have to recognize the intergenerational trauma and violence that youth are exposed to and give them the support they need to create more positive and healthy mindsets and fulfill their potential.

Knowing all of this, it is beyond clear that taking these young people and putting them in Angola — an adult prison environment — directly counters what we know and believe in our faith and in our hearts. Angola is notorious for its inhumane treatment of Black people, starting with its history as a plantation for enslaved Africans until today. When we really reflect on that, we can see how harmful this decision was. We can also see that as a state, we are harvesting what we have sown, what we have invested in. 

Louisiana has one of the worst records of incarceration in the world. Black youth are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white children, and we rank among the last in the nation for education and the well-being of our children. 

Over two decades ago, our lawmakers passed Act 1225, which was supposed to stop the violence in our youth prisons and completely transform our youth justice system into one that prioritizes supporting our youth instead of locking them in cages. At that time, we were making national news because of the abuse and neglect incarcerated youth were facing. Sadly, we are in the national spotlight once again for the same horrific conditions — with reports of suicides, violence, sexual abuse and lack of education or mental health services in our state’s youth prisons, including Ware and St. Martinville. 

Unfortunately, the promises of Act 1225 were never fulfilled.

It’s time for our leaders to start sowing better seeds for Louisiana by investing in our children and following through on promises made over 20 years ago. When we talk about faith, it’s not only about faith in God, but in our leaders to do the right thing. 

As a Christian man, I always want to honor my word, and the things I put on paper, because a man is represented by what he says and does — policymakers should follow suit. 

Proverbs 29:2 reminds us: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice.” There are many kinds of authority — government authority, the authority that correctional officers have over these kids, the spiritual authority and guidance our faith leaders provide, to name a few.

But right now, the people are not rejoicing for our youth justice system. They are mourning. Our children and families are struggling with poverty and lack of quality education, job opportunities and mental health support. The Office of Juvenile Justice has been in a constant state of crisis. And now, parents also have to fear that their children might be sent to one of the most inhumane prisons in the nation. 

Still, we have an opportunity to change that. We have to call upon all of these authorities to be part of the solution and to recommit to a complete transformation of our youth justice system. It’s not too late for Gov. Edwards to move forward with comprehensive reform. That would be the more honorable choice for a man of God, to show that we can all learn from our mistakes and choose to walk the right path toward repair and healing in our communities. 

In the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers should recommit to a holistic plan instead of putting forth piecemeal approaches that simply don’t work. Our faith leaders can still rise up and take a stand for our children. Because we have to do something different to get different results. 

We must provide children with the education and support they need to thrive and for our state to thrive. Only then, will the people rejoice.


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Bishop Sredni Autrey
Bishop Sredni Autrey

Bishop Sredni Autrey is a local pastor and Shreveport chapter lead with Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), an organization that works to close Louisiana's remaining youth prisons and advance rehabilitative measures for incarcerated young people across the state.