An inmate takes out the trash at the Department of Corrections headquarters in downtown Baton Rouge. (Photo provided by Louisiana Department of Corrections)
Members of the legislature were largely in sync in 2017 when they backed what was called the “Raise the Age” Act, which stopped treating 17-year-olds as adults in the state’s criminal justice system. Ample evidence showed Louisiana’s historic approach of warehousing youth offenders and treating many as adults did nothing to curb juvenile crime rates — and actually exacerbated the problem.
It’s an extremely tough argument to say “Raise the Age” has produced positive results. Recent years have seen repeated instances of riots, escapes and violence at youth detention centers around the state, culminating in a costly and, some would say, ill-advised relocation of the most problematic teens to a renovated section of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
But it’s an equally questionable stretch to pin responsibility for current juvenile crime trends on the 2017 law, which had bipartisan support at the Capitol. Federal data show juvenile arrests fell between 2016 and 2020, and there’s consensus among criminologists that the COVID-19 pandemic erased much of the progress made on juvenile crime.
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A pinpoint cause for the increase in youth violent crime has been tough to arrive at because, for one thing, discussions over juvenile justice have centered more on political point-making than finding feasible solutions.
In Louisiana, there are certainly correlations between delinquent youth and a lack of investment in education, public health, recreational opportunities and alternatives to incarceration that span generations. Anyone who can’t see this hand-in-hand relationship clearly doesn’t want to for selfish reasons.
While they are to be praised for passing the Raise the Age Act, lawmakers and the Edwards administration also have to bear responsibility for not marshaling the state’s correctional resources to handle what had to be an anticipated increase in juvenile offenders. Youth detention centers in all corners of the state were not prepared for the influx in occupants in terms of rehabilitative space and staffing.
The same parties also have to take ownership of other shortcomings, and it would be premature to call the Raise the Age Act a failure until all these deficiencies that impact youth in Louisiana are adequately addressed.
Yet that hasn’t prevented two state lawmakers from trying to wind back the clock six years.
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, wants to resume treating all 17-year-old criminal suspects as adults, though his colleagues aren’t quite on board with the idea. A Senate committee all but neutered House Bill 208 with an amendment that applied his proposal only to carjacking.
Just before Seabaugh’s amended bill was brought up for a Senate vote Monday, he tacked on its original provisions to a Senate bill that was being considered in the House. Senate Bill 159, from Sen. Stewart Cathey, R-Monroe, was intended to address the detention of 17-year-olds after their arrest for certain offenses.
Representatives questioned whether Seabaugh’s maneuver was germane to the original intent of Cathey’s bill, but House Speaker Clay Schexnayder ruled the amendment also involved juvenile justice. The updated Senate bill was approved, 67-33, with Republican Reps. Barry Ivey of Central and Richard Nelson of Mandeville in opposition with House Democrats.
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Word of the Seabaugh amendment on Cathey’s bill made its way over to the Senate as none other than Cathey brought up Seabaugh’s House Bill 208 for a vote. Some senators took issue with the two lawmakers’ backdoor approach to get all 17-year-old offenders treated as adults.
Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, called out colleagues who had no problem with treating juveniles as adults in the justice system yet didn’t trust transgender teens and parents to make suitable decisions on healthcare. Senators had approved a ban on gender-affirming care earlier in the day.
While he was OK with the amended version of Seabaugh’s bill that limited the change to carjacking, Luneau said he could not support elevating all 17-year-olds to the adult court and correctional systems.
“The answer to this problem is not putting kids who make a mistake at 17 years old in jail,” Luneau said.
Science backs the viewpoint that an adult approach to corrections isn’t suitable for teen offenders. The National Institute of Mental Health, with wide reinforcement from academic research, has confirmed brain development for males and females isn’t complete until around age 25.
In the penal context, this translates into youth incarcerated in adult settings being far more likely to reoffend than those placed in a juvenile system that emphasizes rehabilitation.
Time could well run out on both the Seabaugh and Cathey bills as the legislative session comes to end at 6 p.m. Thursday. Seabaugh’s bill hadn’t made it out of the Senate as of Tuesday, and senators still have to approve the changes to Cathey’s bill. (Update: The Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to reject Cathey’s Senate Bill 159).
More than just two days are needed to consider the full context of juvenile justice where 17-year-olds are considered, and how the youth correctional system’s objective is to be rehabilitative and not punitive. Judges and prosecutors currently have power to treat the most heinous teen offenders as adults when warranted. Voters can replace them if they feel they aren’t wielding that authority effectively.
A reversion back to the blanket approach for all 17-year-olds accused of crime will only add more stress to already-weak points in Louisiana’s youth correctional system that’s currently held together with duct tape and string.
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