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

Louisiana’s troubled state-run juvenile detention facilities are all full, according to a letter sent by officials with the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice to juvenile court judges last week, and they won’t be accepting any new youth into custody until judges first sign off on releasing kids that the agency deems “can be safely reintegrated back into the community.” 

Bill Sommers, the Deputy Secretary for OJJ, wrote to the judges that the agency “cannot safely accept” more youth until “OJJ can gain momentum to increase our state’s bed space,” noting that currently many youth who are supposed to be in OJJ custody are still being held in local detention facilities that are intended to house kids whose cases have not yet been adjudicated. 

Sommers cited two main factors contributing to the bed shortage, one being the closure of a thirty-six bed dormitory at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe following a “riot” by kids in custody there. But Sommers also said that many youth in OJJ custody had “extensive lengths of stay,” and that many did not need to be held in such restrictive conditions. 

“There are a number of youth being maintained in OJJ’s custody who legally could be released to continue their rehabilitation in a less restrictive community based setting,” Sommers wrote. 

He said that the agency’s legal department would start filing motions “in the coming days” in juvenile court to “modify the dispositions of youth” that the agency believes can be safely released, so that the state can take new kids into custody from the local detention centers. 

“We are asking for your consideration to grant these motions as there is no other way to remove youth from the local detention centers pending placement unless we first safely release those youth who qualify for community-based rehabilitation services,” Sommers wrote. 

Sommers said that the agency was working to build a new 72-bed facility at the Swanson Monroe facility, and repair the damaged Cypress Unit, and that when those are complete the “state will be in a better position to meet the demands of court order placements.” 

The state’s juvenile justice system has been the subject of frequent and intense scrutiny and criticism in recent months for holding youth in sometimes harsh conditions, along with incidents of violence and repeated escapes from the facilities. 

In July, Governor John Bel Edwards announced a controversial plan to utilize a facility housed on the campus of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to temporarily house youth in custody, which survived a challenge in federal court brought by civil rights attorneys who said that it would cause psychological harm to the kids placed there.

In October, the agency transferred the first group of kids to the facility. 

Gina Womack, with Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Youth, an advocacy organization which shared the letter from OJJ to the judges with media on Tuesday evening, said in a statement that she saw the bed shortage as an opportunity for the state to utilize more community based approaches to juvenile justice and rehabilitation. 

“We are cautiously optimistic that this dire situation is an opportunity for the Office of Juvenile Justice to take a different approach,” Womack said. “It is way past time to stop the flow of Black and brown children into this dehumanizing and damaging system and to send kids home, the majority of whom are in prison for non-violent offenses. It’s also unfortunate that it took a crisis to force the state’s hand. We know that what is best for our young people is that they receive holistic services and support in their communities.”

A spokesperson for the Office of Juvenile Justice did not immediately respond to request for comment from The Lens, noting that they were in receipt of the request and would “be in touch soon.” 

Aaron Clark-Rizzio, with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said that he was “very supportive” of the move by OJJ, but wished that they had been more transparent in their decision making and plans going forward.

“No state agency should take custody and control of a child if they’re not prepared and able to care and protect that child, and provide all of the things a child needs and deserves in the same way a caring parent would,” he said.

This story has been updated with a comment from Aaron Clark-Rizzio at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.

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...