From December 2019, a handcuffed man is led toward the New Orleans jail. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

A bill that would send 17-year-olds accused of certain offenses to adult jail, rather than a juvenile lockup, is headed toward final passage in the Louisiana State Legislature. On Tuesday, the bill, which has already passed the state Senate, passed out of the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice in a 6-5 vote. Its next stop will be a final vote on the House floor. 

Under Senate Bill 418, brought by Sen. Steward Cathey, Republican of Monroe, 17-year-olds who are arrested related to a crime of violence who also have “a history of prior delinquent acts” in the state to be taken to an adult jail after an arrest — even if they will ultimately not be charged as an adult. 

The bill comes just two years after the 2016 Raise The Age bill, which ended the practice of automatically charging 17-year-olds as adults, took full effect in the state. As it was initially filed, SB 418 would have fully undone the Raise the Age legislation. But it was amended significantly on the floor of the Senate to apply primarily to pretrial detention as opposed to court jurisdiction. 

But the amended version has come under fire from advocates for juvenile defendants. Groups opposing the bill point to data that show when kids are held in adult jails they are more likely to be the vicitims of sexual and physical assault, and more likely to committ suicide while locked up. They also say that the proposal would go against federal law that says juveniles who are not being charged in adult court, except in very limited circumstances, must be held in a juvenile facility. 

And it would also force law enforcement to lock up kids in adult jail even in places where it goes against local policy. 

Though the 2016 law, which was phased in and took full effect in 2020, meant that 17-year-olds accused of crimes were automatically placed in the juvenile system, it still allowed local district attorneys to charge them as adults for certain serious crimes. 

However, in New Orleans, even when that has happened, the teenagers have typically been locked up in juvenile jail while awaiting trial. A city ordinance on the books says that the juvenile jail is the appropriate place for teenagers to be held, even those being charged as adults. 

Despite his decision to go back on a campaign promise not to try juveniles as adults, Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams has said he is still committed to the idea that no juveniles should be held in adult jails prior to trial.

“I’ve been steadfast about the fact that I believe that all juveniles should be housed in appropriate juvenile facilities, they should not be placed in facilities with adults where they will certainly be preyed upon,” he said during a 2021 press conference where he announced for the first time since taking office that he would prosecute two juveniles as adults

Asked about SB 418, Williams said he stood firm on that. 

“The history, social science and data is very clear on this. The State of Louisiana should rely on national best practices and be smart about what works and what doesn’t. Housing juveniles in adult jails is not smart,” Williams said in a Tuesday statement. “These young people should be held in appropriate juvenile facilities that support their educational development and protect them from being physically and sexually abused.”

Timothy David Ray, a spokesperson for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, which would be responsible for the 17-year-olds locked up in the adult jail — the Orleans Justice Center — should the law take effect, said Sheriff Susan Hutson was also opposed.

“Sheriff Hutson does not support SB418,” Ray said. “She stands with our community on this issue and they have been steadfast in their position that our children need social and family services rather than merely locking them up in an adult jail. The OJC is not equipped nor staffed to constitutionally house juveniles, but the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center is more appropriate – they have the right services and dedicated professionals and child advocates fighting to change lives.” 

A spokesperson for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell did not respond to a request for comment on the bill before the publication of this story. 

Cantrell’s administration in 2019 supported the transfer of some juveniles to the adult jail, former City Attorney Sunni LaBeouf indicated in late 2020 that they would no longer do so. 

Bill would force localities to send kids to adult jail, even when not charged as adults

Cathey said he was encouraged to bring the bill by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and District Attorney Tony Clayton — of the 18th Judicial District, covering West Baton Rouge Parish, Iberville Parish and Pointe Coupee Parish —  as a way to address what they described as a rash of violent crime committed by 17-year-olds. 

During an earlier hearing on SB 418 last month, New Orleans data analyst Jeff Asher, who specializes in crime data analysis, told legislators that violent crime has increased across the country over the past two years — though still far below the levels seen 30 years ago — and said there was no indication that new laws, such as the Raise the Age law, requiring older teenagers to be treated as juveniles had anything to do with it. In fact, Asher said, juveniles accounted for a lower share of murders in Louisiana in 2020 than in 2018. 

Another problem, according to people opposed to the bill, is it would have youth sent to adult jail even in places, like New Orleans, where local district attorneys rarely charge juveniles as adults. 

“There are a whole list of offenses that kids would be mandated to be held in jail for, which in New Orleans, they would not be prosecuted as adults,”  Rachel Gassert, policy director for Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, told The Lens. “So they would start off in jail, but they would not actually be likely to be prosecuted as adults. It is completely unnecessary for them to be put in the jail at all, for any reason, because they’re not going to be prosecuted as an adult.” 

Gassert testified at the meeting that in the state’s two largest cities, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, there are currently “no kids in the adult jails.”

“And that would have to change,” she said. “We would be forced to put kids in adult jails.”

She said that New Orleans “is an example of why we don’t need this legislation.” 

“Because we haven’t had a problem,” she said. “We actually spent a long time intentionally focused on a goal of removing kids from adult jails because of all the problems that come from it, and how dangerous it is. And we created a process where we could eventually get to zero kids in the jail. We have fully realized that goal, and it’s been working fine.”

Gassert said that she thinks local officials — including those in New Orleans — would be justified in ignoring the legislation, should it pass.

Some legislators on Tuesday also expressed concern that there wouldn’t even be any preliminary hearing to assess the evidence against the 17-year-old. 

“It’s immediately upon being arrested —  there is no determination of probable cause of the strength of the case,” Rep. Joe Marino, Independent of Gretna, said. “It’s just immediately upon being arrested for certain offenses, a 17 year old is going to go straight to the adult system and stay there unless they’re then later removed back to juvenile?”

Cathey said that was correct.

“When they’re accused of a crime — not convicted or adjudicated,” Marino said.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...