Demonstrators gathered outside City Hall in June to protest harsher juvenile justice policies announced by the city. Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

The shortest route from the city of Plaquemine, Louisiana to Dothan, Alabama, by car is over 400 miles, takes more than six hours, and requires crossing into both Mississippi and Florida. The route takes you through Baton Rouge, where you’ll be within a few miles of a juvenile jail. Farther along on the ride, you’ll pass the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center. In fact, there are 13 juvenile detention centers in the state of Louisiana that are closer to Plaquemine than Dothan, and all of them are licensed by the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS. But if you are under the age of 18 in Plaquemine and get arrested, rather than be held in a nearby juvenile detention center, you may be sent to Dothan. 

Records obtained by The Lens show that so far in 2022, the city of Plaquemine paid over $25,000 to Southeast Alabama Youth Services’ Diversion Center, a juvenile detention center in Dothan, to hold kids who were arrested in the city and awaiting trial. It is unclear if the payments were for a single kid or several, but they were held for a combined 118 days — $226 per day, per kid. 

Plaquemine is not the only place in Louisiana that is sending kids who are arrested out of state. The Lens found that over a dozen cities and parishes are contracting either with the Dothan facility, or another in Natchez, Mississippi, and have together paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to hold kids from Louisiana — sometimes for just days, but often for weeks or months at a time.

The arrangements may violate state laws, which appear to require that kids who are arrested be held in detention facilities that have been licensed by the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services. DCFS does not license any out-of-state facilities. Advocates for juveniles have raised concerns that not only are children being moved far away from their families and lawyers, but there is no oversight from the state regarding the conditions of the facilities that they are being sent to in other states.

“We have really no way of knowing the conditions under which children are being held,” said Richard Pittman, Director of Juvenile Defender Services for the Louisiana Public Defender Board. “Louisiana has extensive regulations in place about conditions of confinement, services, all sorts of things. And there are all sorts of things in the DCFS regulations that govern how children in detention centers are to be held, what the facility looks like, how it’s built — all of that stuff is heavily regulated. Outside of the state, we don’t know that they have those extensive regulations. We don’t know what conditions they’re being held in.”

Pittman said that sending kids out of state for detention “renders our statutory system and our regulatory systems farcical.”

“It’s something every citizen of the state should be concerned with,” he said. 

DCFS did not directly answer questions from The Lens about whether officials in the department believed housing juveniles out of state is illegal, but a spokesperson confirmed that they do not license out-of-state facilities. 

“We have no authority over the placement of children or youth in a particular facility, whether in or out of state,” Catherine Heitman, Director of Communications for DCFS said in a statement. “These decisions are made at the local level.”

“How does a Louisiana court hold that out-of-state facility to account for conditions of confinement?” Pittman said. “I don’t know that there is a good mechanism for that.”

It appears that the practice of sending kids out of state has been going on for several years, but has gotten relatively little attention from state lawmakers or juvenile justice advocates. Pittman said that part of the reason is because juvenile defense attorneys may be concerned that raising objections would do their clients more harm than good. 

“A child’s defense attorney has to think about the interests of the child,” Pittman said. “And talking about the situation publicly might not benefit the child. And I cannot fault a defense attorney in the face of this for saying, ‘The best thing for my client is to not talk about it publicly.’” 

It also does not appear that state appellate courts have ruled the legality practice. But on Tuesday, an attorney in Assumption Paris filed a petition with the state First Circuit Court of Appeal arguing that his juvenile client, who is being held in Adams County, Mississippi, should be released or moved, because holding him out of state violates state law and is “just as impermissible as placement in an adult facility would be.” The filing suggests that it was the first time the issue has been brought up.

Some youth justice advocates argue that if kids need to be detained at all, it should be in their own communities with easy access to their families and lawyers — particularly kids who have not yet been found to be delinquent, or been convicted of a crime. 

Sangeeta Prasad, Executive Director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, said that taking kids far away from their homes only increases the likelihood that they will end up back in the juvenile or criminal legal system. 

“It doesn’t make us safer, it costs a lot of money, and it really disconnects them from the kinds of supports they need in order to reenter successfully — when and if they get out,” Prasad said. “Now mind you — they may not be found guilty, they may not be adjudicated delinquent. But there still will be that period of time where they’re sitting somewhere far away from home.” 

She said that burden is even greater when juvenile defendants lack economic resources, which she said many do. 

“If they are poor, they are less likely to have visitation, less likely to be able to maintain their connections to their family, and friends, and community supports if they’re sent far away from home,” Prasad said. “So really, you’re not helping. You’re doing more harm than good.”

Gina Womack, director of Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), said that “if you are trying to connect young people to community based programs, and community and families, transferring a young person across state lines is contradictory to research.”

We have a huge problem’

Once children go through the adjudication process — the juvenile equivalent of a trial — in Louisiana, they fall under the jurisdiction of a state agency, the Office of Juvenile Justice, which operates four secure care facilities throughout the state. Those facilities have had their own issues regarding conditions and oversight.

But when kids are locked up prior to adjudication, where they are held is determined by local authorities. Some jurisdictions, such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge, operate their own juvenile detention centers. But others have to contract out. And some local officials in parishes without their own facilities say that they have been having trouble finding bed space in Louisiana to house juveniles accused of offenses, and are forced to move them out of state. 

“It’s kind of a last resort for us,” said Pointe Coupee Parish President Major Thibaut. ”I think we check with Lafayette, Monroe, and the other few facilities that normally have open beds in Louisiana. And if they’re all packed, I think we contact Adams County.”

Records show that Pointe Coupee Parish has sent three kids to Adams County Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi since May 25 of last year, and paid over $17,000 to hold them for just over 100 days. 

Thibaut said that he didn’t have a position on the legality of holding kids out of state, but that the lack of beds nearby had become a major issue for the parish.

“I don’t know whether they need to be licensed in Louisiana or not,” Thibaut said. “I do know that  we have a huge problem. There’s nowhere to send kids that need to be sent somewhere.” He said that sometimes judges in his parish were forced to release kids on ankle monitors due to lack of bed space. 

“I really don’t care where it is, as long as they’re getting what they need, and also that it’s an affordable price,” Thibaut said. He noted that the Adams County facility, which is about a two hour drive from Pointe Coupee, is closer than some of the in-state facilities. 

Tony Clayton, the district attorney who prosecutes cases in Pointe Coupee, along with those in West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes, has also expressed frustration with the fact that there is no nearby juvenile detention center, and has expressed interest in converting an abandoned school in his district into one. 

But at the legislature this year, Clayton proposed another potential solution —  automatically charging all 17-year-olds as adults, and put them in adult jails. 

At a legislative hearing in April on a bill that would have undone 2017’s Raise the Age bill and returned 17-year-olds accused of crimes to the adult legal system Clayton bemoaned the costs of housing kids in his district out of state, and said he should be able to automatically put them in the parish jail. 

“I have to try to move lawyers to try to transfer him to an adult prison,” Clayton told the committee. “They won’t take him. If I can’t get that transfer done, then I have to put him in a juvenile [detention facility]. You have to send him to Alabama — up to $600 a day….It’s $26 a day if I can house him in my local jail.” (Clayton did not respond to questions from The Lens regarding where he came up with the $600 a day figure.)

Juvenile justice advocates in the state opposed the measure — which didn’t ultimately pass — and Prasad, with Center for Children’s Law and Policy, said that utilizing adult jails for 17-year-olds was a bad idea, and would be “incredibly harmful long term to their brain development.”

Federal law also requires adults be held separately from youth, something not all facilities may be able to accomodate. She said that instead kids should be placed in “small therapeutic settings in young people’s communities” 

Thibaut seemed to agree, but said that his parish, and other rural parishes like Pointe Coupee, can’t afford to build their own facility.  He said that the state or federal government should either build the facilities themselves, or partner with local governments to do so. 

“Because it’s a serious issue,” Thibaut said. “It’s a serious problem facing us.”

But Womack, with FFLIC, said that the state should look for ways to lock up fewer kids in the first place, and focus investments on interventions that would prevent kids from entering the juvenile justice system in the first place. 

“We’re quick to build prisons, or look for ways to over police and incarcerate young people,” Womack said. “And there’s not enough funding that is put into more programs, and treatment, and counselors, and all of the things that are preventive.” 

(The Lens contacted several other local governments regarding their use of out-of-state detention centers, but none — aside from Pointe Coupee — responded.)

‘More down here from Louisiana than Mississippi’

In the last 12 months, the Adams County Detention Center, in Natchez, Mississippi has held over 50 kids from 11 parishes — Allen, Assumption, Concordia, East Feliciana, Grant, Iberville, Pointe Coupee, St. James, St. Landry, St. Martin, and West Baton Rouge —  for a total of 1,830 days, charging $170 per day, per kid.

Overall the parishes paid a combined $311,100 to the detention center.  Assumption Parish sent the most, with 17 kids for a total of 594 days. It paid the detention center over $100,000. Kids were held from anywhere between two days to nearly nine months.

Walt Brown, a Youth Court judge in Adams County, wouldn’t give an exact date of when the detention center there started contracting with Louisiana municipalities, but said that it has been “more than a couple years.” 

Records show that it goes back to at least 2019, when the city of Plaquemine, which now contracts with the Alabama facility, paid Adams County over $1,200 to house juveniles.  But Brown told The Lens that it’s “picked up considerably” recently. 

“To the point where we may have more down here from Louisiana and Mississippi, at any given time,” he said.

Brown said he was “hesitant to allow it in the beginning,” but thought it ultimately made sense logistically given how close the facility was to Louisiana. “It just made sense to do it that way. You know, parents can visit.” 

Some of the parishes that contract with Adams County, such as Concordia, are in fact very close. But others are a several hour drive. And Brown acknowledged that there could be some legal concerns with holding kids from Louisiana in Mississippi. 

“State lines are state lines, and laws change when you cross them,” he said.

According to Tabitha Brannon, executive director of Southeast Alabama Youth Services, the non-profit that manages the Dothan facility, they started contracting with parts of Louisiana in September of last year. She said they have kids from a handful of parishes, but denied a request for invoices or contracts from all Louisiana municipalities. 

When she spoke to The Lens in mid-May, she said the facility had seven kids from Louisiana.

State ‘failed its obligation’

At least one juvenile defense attorney in Assumption Parish is challenging the legality of holding juveniles out of state. Richard Brazan filed a writ to the First Circuit Court of Appeal on behalf of his client who has been held in Adams County since mid-April of this year after a district court judge denied his request to have him moved or released. 

“The safety and the protection of the juvenile cannot be secured if the juvenile is in an out-of-state facility,” the filing reads. “There is no guarantee that out-of-state facilities meet licensure requirements such as schooling, mental health support, and other requirements to make sure that juveniles receive what they need while in detention.”

He also said that the distance between Assumption Parish and Adams County — about 150 miles — was detrimental to the child receiving legal representation. 

“Although Zoom has helped, placing the child so far away makes it difficult for his attorney to talk with him,” Brazan wrote. “It is also far more difficult for the parents of the child to make a personal visit.

In addition, Brazan noted that state law requires juvenile detention facilities in Louisiana to gather data on the kids who are held there, and can be accessed by designated officials. He argued that there was “no assurance” that the Mississippi facility would keep such records, nor that they could be readily accessed. 

Ultimately, he argued, just because beds may not be available in Louisiana does not make it legal to hold a kid out of state in a facility, and that the state has “failed its obligation to provide beds for juveniles who need to be detained.”

“The paramount interest of the children,” he wrote, “should not be subordinated to the state’s unwillingness to provide in-state detention facilities.”

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...