This story was done in collaboration with The Lens.
NEW ORLEANS — Reports of gladiator-style fighting, guards molesting children and a lack of basic education for kids as young as 14 once gave Louisiana’s juvenile justice system the reputation of one of the worst in the country.
In 2003, the Louisiana Legislature passed sweeping reforms. Over time, those efforts helped whittle down the number of kids locked in sprawling, prison-like facilities from more than 2,000 to about 350 today.
Rather than locking up juveniles, the state relies more on community-based services such as family therapy to deal with behavioral disorders and drug addiction. New rules in youth facilities forbid Mace, restraining chairs and excessive time in solitary confinement.
On paper, Louisiana is called a “model” state by reform agencies, almost achieving what criminologist Barry Krisberg calls the “American juvenile justice ideal.”
The state “has made remarkable progress,” said Hunter Hurst, senior research associate for the National Center for Juvenile Justice, a nonpartisan research group. “It’s a pretty well-known story nationally.”
But people close to the system say Louisiana’s reform efforts haven’t gone nearly far enough to be considered a model for anything.
Frustrated family members, defense lawyers and criminal justice reform advocates criticize the way the state treats its youngest convicts. Some say the state’s juvenile justice system is regressing to what made it infamous more than a decade ago.
“Louisiana should be ashamed,” said Grace Bauer, the mother of a family from Sulphur, La., and executive director of Justice For Families, a national organization that opposes youth incarceration.
“The system is not the answer, if kids are getting locked up in one of these cages,” she said. “It’s so backwards. We’re moving backwards.”
One of the most telling indicators of this, critics say, is the state’s lack of investment in facilities that don’t lock up kids, such as group homes and medical treatment facilities.
Meanwhile, state officials have decided to build more prison-like facilities. Officials announced plans to build three more; construction on one began in August.
Although more juvenile offenders are now in alternative facilities, conditions there sometimes border on inhumane, according to critics and state inspectors. Children are forced to go without prescribed medication, punished with long stretches in solitary confinement and have been Maced by staff, according to state inspections.
The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice, the agency created to oversee the system, provides inadequate monitoring of prison alternatives such as group homes, according to reports by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.
“We were once ahead of the rest of the country on this stuff,” Bauer said. “And now it’s almost like the administration is not bothering to read the science that’s out there.”
Reformers target violent youth prisons
Following a “tough on crime” approach to juvenile justice, Louisiana had the highest juvenile incarceration rate in the country in the 1990s. Youthful offenders were likely to break the law again. Judges handed out inconsistent sentences. And many juveniles ended up in adult courts.
During a series of public hearings, youth advocates, legislators, district attorneys, judges and citizens began to identify problems in the system.
In 1995, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch concluded that all four of the state’s youth prisons violated international human rights standards. Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth in the northeast corner of the state stood out, with cramped dormitories, windowless isolation cells and pervasive corporal punishment. Children said they never had enough to eat and were often Maced by guards.
In 1996, the U.S. Department of Justice opened its own investigation into the state’s youth prisons. The agency found that in a 20-day period, 28 children at Tallulah were hospitalized for serious injuries. The report said some kids had clearly suffered sexual abuse.
Two years later, the newly formed Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana sued on behalf of youth in Tallulah. Project cofounder David Utter, an attorney, said they got lucky when the Justice Department joined the suit, because it kickstarted reform of the juvenile justice system.
But things didn’t get better right away. Six years after the Human Rights Watch report, Bauer’s son Corey was sent to Tallulah on a theft conviction. Even then, broken noses, fractured jaws and punctured eardrums were everyday occurrences.
Bauer said her 14-year-old son was raped, neglected and abused there. Bruises and heart problems marked the physical toll; severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder accounted for his psychological wounds.
“Now he’s doing a 12-year sentence for an armed robbery with a BB gun, because that’s all he knows how to do — is live in an institution,” she said. “It’s all a vicious cycle.”
Utter, who now works with the Southern Poverty Law Center, agrees that facilities like Tallulah contribute to repeat offenses. He has long argued that prisons are bad for kids.
“It follows what we know [about] what works for adolescents and teenagers,” he said. “Teenage years are the time when you learn how to become an adult — when you make mistakes that don’t kill you. By controlling every minute of their day, we’re taking away the biggest thing a kid has to learn, which is how to be independent.”
Two years after Corey was committed, in 2003, the Louisiana Legislature passed Act 1225. It laid the foundation for therapeutic approaches. The idea, similar to a reform effort called the Missouri Model, was to address children’s problems rather than lock them up.
The state closed Tallulah and increased supervision of parolees. And the state Office of Juvenile Justice became separate from the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
Louisiana changed its policies to emphasize community involvement, facilities that are more like homes, and follow-up care after incarceration. The new rules targeted kids who hadn’t committed serious crimes, offering them intensive therapy, treatment for drug abuse and mentorships.
This approach is supported by a range of people, from district attorneys to youth advocates, said Beauregard Parish District Attorney David Burton. “We have the right idea,” he said.
Burton serves on the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission, which was formed in 2003 to oversee these reforms.
In the 11 years since, more and more young offenders have gone to alternative facilities rather than adult-like prisons. But Burton said the state is far from done.
“We’re in a transition state and still have a ways to go. After all, it took Missouri 17 years to undergo their reform effort,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can with the cards we’ve been dealt.”
Alternative facilities face questions about conditions
Louisiana now operates three youth prisons for teenage boys around the state: Monroe, Columbia and Bridge City near New Orleans. A private company runs a facility for girls in Coushatta in the northwestern part of the state.
These places are not nearly as crammed as they used to be. The rate of youth imprisonment in Louisiana dropped by more than half from 2001 to 2010 — one of the biggest drops in the country, according to a Justice Policy Institute report issued last year.
That’s important because kids are more likely to thrive in community-based programs and group homes than in prisons, according to organizations such as the Justice Policy Institute.
The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice contracts with seven nonprofit firms to run juvenile group residences and inpatient treatment facilities. Others are available through the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals.
However, those seven facilities have been flagged for serious problems. According to numerous investigations by the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services:
- Children in private facilities are sometimes forced to go without medical care and haven’t been given prescription drugs that they need.
- Youth at some facilities have been restrained or held in solitary confinement for more than 24 hours.
- Children say they’ve been abused or Maced by staff.
- Employees have been hired without undergoing criminal background checks.
Joshua Perry, the executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said his staff found dire conditions in the residential children’s home Christian Acres Youth Center, based in Tallulah.
When two of his team’s lawyers visited in May, Perry said, “There were dorms surrounded by barbed wire. Children were sleeping in 12-room dorms on old hospital beds.” And there were no vocational programs or services for children with special needs.
“It’s really astonishing how little accountability there is for adults who hold kids’ futures in their hands,” Perry said. “Adolescents are really sensitive to hypocrisy. Don’t think they miss it for a second if they aren’t being treated fairly.”
Perry also said there are too few of these facilities in the state, which means parents, lawyers and state officials have to travel hundreds of miles to check on kids. That contributes to poor oversight, he said.
Inconsistent oversight, payment of private facilities
The Louisiana Legislative Auditor also has criticized the way these homes and treatment programs are overseen.
All told, the state’s juvenile justice agency can send youth to 44 residential facilities that aren’t prisons. The Office of Juvenile Justice doesn’t directly run any of them. They aren’t all managed by the same organization, either — a system that, according to critics, invites problems.
Jerel Giarrusso, the communications director for the Office of Juvenile Justice, said that her agency regularly checks on every residential facility that has a young offender. But in a 2014 report, the state’s Legislative Auditor found problems with some of those facilities.
Auditors found that the Office of Juvenile Justice didn't check to make sure those facilities offered services such as drug and alcohol treatment, education assessments or behavior management programs.
The Louisiana Legislative Auditor also found financial problems in 2010 and 2014.
Reports show that some of those facilities were paid as little as $113 per child per day, while others received up to $259. There didn’t seem to be any way to ensure that the ones that received more money were using those funds for better or more intensive programs.
The Office of Juvenile Justice was supposed to set a formula for reimbursement, but didn’t, according to the reports.
“They need to come up with a way to ensure that the money is being spent on children at that home,” said Performance Audit Manager Gina Brown of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor. Now, “they can’t ensure that the per diem is actually going to the child.”
Recent cuts to state budgets may be partially to blame, as the Office of Juvenile Justice told auditors that officials didn’t have the means to conduct financial audits of the companies.
In 2012, more mental health and drug treatment options became available through a program overseen by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Giarusso said youth in the state’s juvenile justice system are being sent to 37 of those facilities, in addition to the seven that contract with the Office of Juvenile Justice.
But an official with the Louisiana Legislative Auditor said that until an audit is done on the organization that manages those contracts, no one knows if those 37 facilities are run any better than the others.
“The jury is still out on whether this is a better system or not,” said Performance Audit Manager Karen LeBlanc.
More prisons on the way
Legislative auditors found that the Office of Juvenile Justice had reduced the number of contracts with residential facilities from 20 in 2009 to 12 in 2013. Devastating budget cuts meant that school-based counseling and other community programs, which allowed kids to go home at night, were slashed by 57 percent from 2012 to now.
Yet officials have announced plans to increase the number of prison-like facilities from three to five in coming years.
The Acadiana Center for Youth, a new building near Bunkie, is slated to go up within two years. The state plans to replace old buildings with state-of-the-art facilities at the Jetson Center for Youth and at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe.
Office of Juvenile Justice Deputy Secretary Mary Livers has said offenders there will be treated with the therapeutic methods that were the centerpiece of reforms 10 years ago.
As a district attorney, Burton said he’s excited about the new projects. While he believes the state needs community-based alternatives, he believes prisons will always be necessary — and the more individualized treatment offered there, the better.
“From our perspective in the criminal justice system, anything we do has to be consistent with public safety,” Burton said. The state can use therapeutic approaches, he said, but it also has to protect communities and provide the justice that victims deserve.
Others, however, say there’s no place in Louisiana’s system for more juvenile prisons. Not only are they worse for kids, Utter said, they’re more expensive. He pointed to a 2010 legislative audit that shows prisons cost three times more per person than alternative facilities.
According to that audit, the Office of Juvenile Justice spent about $69.2 million on three prison-like facilities and about $24.7 million on 20 alternative facilities in 2009. That works out to $424 a day per youth in in prisons and $136 a day in alternative settings.
“Whether you’re coming at this from liberal perspective or a Republican one, these are public dollars we’re talking about,” Utter said. “If community programs are much cheaper, the state’s got an obligation to spend dollars in a fiscally responsible way.”