Suffer the children to come unto me, Jesus said in the Bible. But not in Bridge City in Jefferson Parish, nor Baker in East Baton Rouge Parish.
How about Monroe? Or, better yet, Angola?
That’s the kind of shell game going on in what appears to be a collapsing juvenile prison system in the midst of today’s crime wave in Louisiana.
The governor and state officials are not grappling enough with the true problems: staffing and security. Not real estate.
When six juveniles escaped from the Bridge City Center for Youth around 2:30 Sunday morning, it was one of series of incidents, multiple breaks plus at least one riot where a SWAT team of Jefferson Parish deputies was called in to restore order.
The point of the juvie jails is to rehabilitate youth, but unfortunately many are hardly choirboys. A crime spree across Jefferson and Orleans left at least one man in the hospital in critical condition and a juvenile escapee arrested in the carjacking and shooting.
The Jefferson Parish Council in June called for Bridge City to be closed. After the latest problems, about two dozen youths will be transferred to a secure facility on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
That’s temporary, as renovations are underway at the Jetson jail near Baker in north Baton Rouge. Baker’s mayor and other officials vented their concerns to the governor.
And the Jetson jail itself is a red flag to juvenile justice advocates, as it was closed in 2014 after numerous abuse and brutality allegations came to light.
Jetson has been used to house women formerly incarcerated at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women after it flooded in 2016. Officials said the women will remain in a separate section of the campus, cut off from the juveniles, as is planned for Angola’s temporary housing.
Renovations should be complete next year for more inmates at Swanson, the Monroe facility for juveniles, Gov. John Bel Edwards said.
Still, the optics of sending juveniles to the sprawling Angola maximum-security prison, even temporarily, are not pretty.
“In general, we have seen that the Office of Juvenile Justice’s response has been to move these kids from one place to another, and that hasn’t changed anything,” said Rachel Gassert, policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.
Edwards basically conceded the point, saying that temporary moves have to be followed by permanent solutions.
“To be clear, they will not under any circumstances have contact with adult inmates,” Edwards said. Good, for after all that would violate federal law.
“I think it’s clear something has to change in how they’re responding to kids’ behavior rather than just finding a different facility to put them in,” Gassert said. She is correct but this is a difficult problem.
For one thing, the juvenile inmates — for that is what they are — are not a homogenous population. The governor said that Bridge City, for example, has about 25 residents held for sex-related offenses; they were not involved in the recent incidents, he said, and will remain there while higher-risk juveniles will be transferred.
Over several administrations and many sessions of the Legislature, Louisiana has tried in fits and starts to transition its juvenile facilities — and court system, and family services, too — into a therapeutic system commonly known as the Missouri model, after that state’s reforms decades ago.
What all this shows is that Louisiana has a long way to go. And our problems, and the chances of steering youth from a life of worse crimes, aren’t going to be solved through moving them around but by dramatically increasing investments, in young people and in a better juvenile system.