The Louisiana Supreme Court could soon weigh in on whether it is legal for cities and parishes throughout the state to send incarcerated juvenile defendants to detention facilities across state lines — a practice that has been going on for years, but one that some attorneys and youth advocates say violates state law and goes against best practices.
Baton Rouge attorney Richard Brazan, a public defender, filed a petition to the court late last month on behalf of a juvenile client — identified only by the initials “J.D.” — who was arrested in Assumption Parish in mid-April, but was being held in Adams County Juvenile Detention Center in Natchez, Mississippi. (Juvenile court proceedings are confidential, and when appeals are made to higher courts, initials are used to protect identities. Exhibits filed along with the petition, which provide more information about the case, are also confidential, according to the Louisiana Supreme Court.)
Brazan’s petition argues that J.D. has been held in the Mississippi facility illegally, because Louisiana state law requires that all juvenile detention facilities be licensed by the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, and the department does not license out-of-state facilities.
But a district court judge rejected that interpretation of the law, and on June 22, a panel of judges on the state’s First Circuit Court of Appeal declined to hear further arguments on the issue. They did not provide any reasoning for their decision. Brazan claims in his filing that the state’s highest court has never weighed in on the issue.
More than a dozen Louisiana parishes and cities have utilized out-of-state detention centers to house kids that have been arrested by local law enforcement, apparently due to a shortage of in-state juvenile detention beds. Records obtained by The Lens show that between May 2021 and May 2022, the Natchez facility was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to hold over 50 kids from 11 parishes in Louisiana. Another facility in Dothan, Alabama, has also held kids from Louisiana.
For the most part, those sent out of state have not had their cases adjudicated or been found guilty of anything. The Office of Juvenile Justice, which is responsible for juveniles whose cases have been adjudicated in court, recently sent some kids in its custody to a juvenile detention facility in Alabama. But they were sent back in-state following an altercation at the facility. OJJ facilities have been the center of controversy in recent months, with frequent escapes, incidents of violence, and reports of abuse. In response, Gov. John Bel Edwards has announced a plan to house some OJJ youth at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which has drawn sharp criticism from youth advocates.
The appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court specifically points to a state law that instructs state agencies to develop licensing requirements in order to “protect the health, safety, and well-being of the children of this state who are placed in juvenile detention facilities,” and requires “all juvenile detention facilities, including facilities owned or operated by any governmental, profit, nonprofit, private, or public agency” to be licensed according to those requirements.
A spokesperson for the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, which aims to coordinate and support criminal justice agencies throughout the state, told The Lens in an email that the commission has “found no law that says a juvenile cannot be held in a detention center out of state,” and that the licensing requirements don’t apply when a child is sent out of state.
“Juvenile Detention facilities in Louisiana are required to be licensed by LDCFS,” said Bob Wertz, the spokesperson, in an email. “Juveniles housed in detention facilities outside of Louisiana are a different matter.”
But some advocates say that interpretation clearly subverts the intent of the legislature.
“If you could side-step all of those laws, all of those rules about how Louisiana children are to be held by shipping them far away, it renders our statutory system and our regulatory systems farcical,” Richard Pittman, Director of Juvenile Defender Services for the state Public Defender Board, told The Lens earlier this year.
The district attorney for 23rd Judicial District, which includes Assumption Parish, Ricky Babin, did not respond to a request for comment on the writ.
It is unclear when the court will decide whether or not to hear the issue. Brazan has asked for expedited consideration.