La.’s juvenile detention facilities at max capacity; officials asking judges to release young offenders

“I can tell you, for the citizens and for the community and for the children, for everybody involved, it is very problematic,” said Chief Judge Candice Bates-Anderson of Orleans Juvenile Court.
Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice has asked for juvenile court judges to release young...
Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice has asked for juvenile court judges to release young offenders on parole to free up space at facilities across the state.
Published: Nov. 16, 2022 at 3:31 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) has asked for juvenile court judges to release young offenders on parole to free up space at facilities across the state, and informed judges that OJJ can no longer accept more youth into state custody.

In a letter sent on Nov. 10, the OJJ said all juvenile detention facilities in the state are at full capacity.

“Many of your local detention centers are holding sentenced youth because OJJ cannot safely place them in a facility or program,” the letter begins. “OJJ is working diligently to step-down to seek your permission to release youth on parole; however, until OJJ can gain momentum to increase our state’s bed space, we cannot safely accept more youth into the agency’s custody.”

The letter says a 2021 riot “completely destroyed” a 36-bed dorm at the Swanson facility in Monroe. The OJJ also claims the “housing of youth with extensive lengths of stays” is contributing to the lack of available space.

“There are a number of youth being maintained in OJJ’s custody who legally could be released to continue their rehabilitation in a less restrictive community-based setting,” the letter reads.

The letter came as news to members of New Orleans City Council, who heard directly from Orleans Parish Juvenile Court judges on Wednesday.

“Any child that we put into detention will remain in the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center until OJJ picks them up. That letter indicates they’re not going to pick them up,” said Judge Ranord Darensburg. “They are not receiving any more youth. So those youth will remain here until, until. And that also includes youth that are arrested, that are only in the [Juvenile Justice Intervention Center] until they can see a judge and either wait there till trial or be released,”

The problem of housing pre-trial juvenile offenders with convicted juvenile offenders will only worsen, the judges said, as the state refuses to accept more youth. As the JJIC goes over capacity, the facility will be in violation and will be cited.

“It’s sending a message, number one, to the children that may commit certain delinquent acts that there’s no place to send them, so what does that mean? It’s sending a message to the judges that no matter what type of work we do, or sit on the bench, that there is no place to send them, so what does that mean?” asked Chief Judge Candice Bates-Anderson. “I can tell you, for the citizens and for the community and for the children, for everybody involved, it is very problematic.”

OJJ’s Legal Division is prepared to file motions to determine which young offenders can be “safely reintegrated back into the community.”

“We are asking [judges] consideration to grant these motions as there is no other way to remove youth from local detention centers pending placement unless we first safely release those youth who qualify for community-based rehabilitation services,” the letter continues.

“The city council is concerned, I’m certainly concerned,” said New Orleans City Councilman Eugene Green. “We recognize that we have a very serious issue, a serious concern. I made it clear that we want to ask the juvenile court judges, or those associated with the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center, to tell us what they need.”

More: Violence, abuse, and escapes plague the juvenile justice system in Louisiana

Green said the city council is prepared to act on funding requests from the juvenile judges and JJIC administration, and he and other councilmembers have asked for more details on what the coming days and weeks will look like and what areas need funding.

“We’re having staffing shortages throughout the city, throughout the state,” he said, noting OJJ is dealing with its own staffing shortage.

Local advocates for incarcerated youth hailed OJJ’s decision but noted the need for increased transparency from the state on the department’s plans going forward.

“If the state cannot appropriately care for children, they should not be removing them from their families and their community,” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. “Here we’re in a situation where OJJ has too many children in its care, its struggling to provide the supports and services that it needs to, and so the focus really does shift back to the judges, because every single child that’s being held in a jail or prison throughout the state is being held there on a judicial order.”

Clark-Rizzio is pushing for the low-level offenders at JJIC to also be released, saying on both the city and state level, many of the incarcerated youth are eligible to be in community-based rehabilitation programs and are not violent.

“We can look at their letter and see they’re talking about capacity and they’re talking about safety. It is appropriate for them not to take children into their custody if they can’t provide them with federally mandated education and the services that children deserve,” he said.

Construction is underway at Swanson to repair the damaged dorm and bring online 72 new beds. Once those projects are complete, the OJJ says the state “will be in a better position to meet the demands of court-ordered placements.”

In October, some of the state’s most violent youth offenders were relocated from the Bridge City center in Jefferson Parish to the old Death Row facility at Angola.

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