Rep. Debbie Billion speaks to the House and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday, May, 26, 2022. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
Proponents suggest a bill under consideration in the Louisiana Legislature would promote accountability for young offenders, especially those charged as adults. The proposal would allow victims to track minors, by name, accused of violent crime as their cases progress through juvenile court.
Yet rather than target the prosecutors who let such matters slip through the cracks, the Truth and Transparency in the Louisiana Criminal Justice System Pilot Program from Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, goes against the grain by removing the veil of confidentiality from juvenile court records. The names of accused youth, which are currently kept secret, would be made public through a portal the attorney general will maintain. It would apply to anyone under 18 accused of a violent crime, not just those who are eventually found guilty.
Any credibility Villio, a former prosecutor, gains from such an approach quickly evaporates when you consider she has limited the bill’s requirements to juvenile courts in Caddo, East Baton Rouge and Orleans parishes. Many of her conservative colleagues have remained silent about expanding the mandate to the remaining 61 parishes, and Villio herself has resisted including her own Jefferson Parish — the second largest in the state.
Critics have also called out support for Villio’s bill from Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has made being tough on crime a major plank in his candidacy for governor. Landry has blasted the state’s three largest urban areas for their youth violent crime rates yet offered little in terms of substantive solutions.
To be certain, these cities and many others have acute problems with teenagers and even adolescent perpetrators. But neither Villio nor Landry have yet to provide solid evidence that making the records of juvenile defendants public will result in fewer violent crimes committed by youth.
The author and the AG have ignored the impact the proposal could have on young people who end up cleared of wrongdoing. If the reputations of innocent youth wind up wounded with stigma shrapnel, so be it apparently.
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The pilot program would be put in place in the three parishes through July 1, 2025. After that, Villio has said it could be put in place elsewhere, but her bill doesn’t specify so. There’s also no clear measuring stick to determine whether or not the pilot is successful, which is important because any reduction in violent crime among juveniles is likely to have many contributing factors.
Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, one of Landry’s opponents in the governor’s race, got an amendment placed on Villio’s bill on the House floor that requires the legislature to fund the program in order for it to be enacted. That could well sink the measure on the Senate side, where lawmakers tend to shun unfunded mandates and deny those without merit.
Villio has implied that clerks of court in Caddo, East Baton Rouge and Orleans would put the pilot program in place if it’s approved, but that’s only because state law would require them to do so. It would be an uncomfortable stretch to suggest they support her proposal.
Caddo Clerk of Court Mike Spence said he is prepared to provide the required information to the attorney general’s office if the legislature and governor approve Villio’s bill.
“I’m just a neutral party while they do their thing,” Spence said in an interview.
Spence has traveled to Baton Rouge and had multiple phone calls with the attorney general’s office and Villio to determine specifics for the pilot program, he said.
It would be generous to call Villio’s bill an experiment because that would imply she, Landry and its supporters have put thought into all potential outcomes. Maybe all the energy in their calls for accountability could be better harnessed if it were in the form of measures that help children avoid the criminal justice system in the first place, such as early childhood education, K-12 investment and anti-poverty efforts.
But few politicians are willing to build a campaign on those planks because they require substance, and the painful truth is that until voters demand more than tough talk from candidates, the change we all want will never be delivered.
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