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“No Room”: Louisiana Juvenile System No Longer Accepting Kids

by Jo Ellen Nott

On November 10, 2022, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) notified judges in state juvenile courts that the agency was “at full bed capacity” in both “secure and non-secure beds,” so it could not accept more youth into custody. The agency also requested permission from the judges to release juvenile offenders on parole whom OJJ believes can be safely returned to the community. 

Bill Sommers, OJJ Deputy Secretary, gave two reasons for the bed shortage: the loss of 36 beds at the Swanson Center for Youth, after a riot; and unnecessarily long court-mandated stays in juvenile detention. He urged judges to release young offenders to a less restrictive community-based setting. He also said too many are still being held in parish lockups and other detention facilities waiting to enter OJJ custody. 

Sommers advised the judges that OJJ’s legal department would start filing motions in juvenile court to “modify the dispositions of youth” that the agency believes can be safely released. That will free up some bed space for waiting youthful offenders.

OJJ is working to build a new 72-bed building at the Swanson Monroe facility and repair the damaged Cypress Unit. When that work is completed, the “state will be in a better position to meet the demands of court order placements,” according to Sommers. 

Louisiana’s juvenile justice system is notorious for holding troubled youth in harsh conditions. The state grapples with incidents of violence and repeated escapes from its juvenile facilities. In July 2022, Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) announced the temporary transfer of some youths in custody to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a move vigorously opposed by civil rights attorneys and juvenile justice advocates. Despite the opposition, OJJ transferred the first group of youthful offenders to housing on the campus at Angola in October 2022. [See PLN, Aug. 25, 2022, online.]

Gina Womack, with Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Youth, said that OJJ’s bed shortage is an opportunity for the state to try community-based approaches to juvenile justice and rehabilitation. “It is way past time to stop the flow of Black and brown children into this dehumanizing and damaging system,” she said, “and to send kids home, the majority of whom are in prison for non-violent offenses.”

Sources:  The Lens, WAFB

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