Louisiana imprisons more people for crimes committed as kids

Louisiana also ranked fourth in total number of people in prison for crimes they committed as youth, with 2,227. Eighty-three percent of them are Black, compared to 65 percent of the prison population at large. 

A new report by the national non-profit Human Rights for Kids has found that the degree to which the United States punishes crimes committed by kids is far out of line with international standards, calling the mass incarceration of children as adults “one of the largest government-sanctioned human rights abuses against children in the world today.” 

Among the worst offending states in the country, according to the report, is Louisiana. 

Louisiana’s adult prisons have a higher percentage of people locked up who were convicted of crimes they committed when they were kids than any other state in the country, it found. As of 2021, 7.2 percent of Louisiana’s prison population were incarcerated for crimes they committed before their 18th birthday. That is over double the nationwide percentage of 3.1 percent. 

Only three other states — Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Maryland — had proportions over six percent. 

Louisiana also ranked fourth in total number of people in prison for crimes they committed as youth, with 2,227. Eighty-three percent of them are Black, compared to 65 percent of the prison population at large. 

The three states with more people who are locked up for crimes they committed as kids are the three most populous states in the country — California, Florida, and Texas — which have between four and eight times more people than Louisiana. 

The report, which takes a state by state look at the number of people in prison who were under the age of 18 when they committed the crime they were convicted of, claims to be the first of its kind.  

Gina Womack, executive director of the advocacy organization Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), said in a statement that the report “confirms what we’ve been saying for decades in Louisiana.”

“When young people are exposed to the prison system, they lose not only their childhoods but their adulthoods too,” she said. “Children should be able to learn from even their worst mistakes, but prison sentences that bleed into adulthood offer no option for rehabilitation. They merely ensure children won’t be able to redeem themselves, stuck inside inhumane living conditions that stifle opportunities to become the best versions of themselves.”

But the report comes amid a renewed push to revert back to Louisiana’s prior compulsory treatment of 17-year-olds as adults in the eyes of the criminal legal system, which was the law until 2016,  likely contributing to the state leading the nation in the first place. 

Last month, a bill by Republican Rep. Alan Seabaugh of Shreveport that would mandate all 17-year-olds charged with a crime of violence as defined under Louisiana law be prosecuted in the adult system, easily passed out of the house and is set to be taken up by a senate judiciary committee. 

“Visiting with sheriffs and law enforcement and DAs all throughout the state, the number one issue that everybody seems to agree on is that the juvenile problem is out of control,” Seabaugh said. “The juvenile, the way they’re incarcerated, the way they’re handled, and in the sheer numbers — those problems can be directly traced back to the raise the age bill.” 

Opponents of the legislation point out that prosecutors already have the ability to transfer juveniles to adult court if they believe it is necessary, and that mandating more punitive sentences won’t improve public safety.

Aaron Clark-Rizzio is the co-executive director of Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, an organization that serves as the juvenile public defender in New Orleans, and also contracts with the state to represent individuals serving mandatory life without parole sentences for crimes committed when they were children following US Supreme Court rulings that found those sentences unconstitutional. 

He said that the report demonstrates the errors of harsh sentencing of kids. 

“We can see by these numbers that even when we lock up large numbers of children to lengthy adult sentences, it does nothing to prevent crime or create safe communities,” he said. If anything this practice has exacerbated our public safety issues as research shows that children who are prosecuted as adults are actually more likely to be arrested in the future when compared to when those same children are kept in the juvenile system.”

Seabaugh did not respond to a request for comment on the report. 

The report argues that habitual treatment of juveniles as adults in the United States is the result of a lineage of racism in the criminal legal system dating back to slavery, and points specifically to the non-unanimous jury law in Louisiana that was implemented in the state during Reconstruction. That law was designed to convict more Black defendants by negating the voices of Black jurors, legal scholars have found. 

While the law was repealed in 2019, and found unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 2021, there are still around 1,500 people still in prison in Louisiana who were convicted on split-jury verdicts. 80 percent of them are Black. And according to the report, nearly 100 of them were convicted of crimes they committed as youth. 

“Until lawmakers start recognizing that children shouldn’t be punished for their mistakes forever, we’ll keep perpetuating this inhumane cycle,” Womack said. “This approach does not reflect the principles of justice; it’s just cruel.”

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...