The Louisiana Supreme Court has declined to take up a case challenging the legality of sending kids arrested in Louisiana to juvenile detention centers out of state. It’s a practice that has been going on for years, though some attorneys and advocates say it violates state law.

Last week, the court unanimously decided to deny a writ application in the case of a juvenile identified by the initials J.D., who had been arrested in Assumption Parish, but was subsequently held in Adams County Juvenile Detention Center in Natchez, Mississippi.

Public defender Richard Brazan filed the petition with the court last July, arguing that holding J.D. in the Mississippi facility violated a Louisiana state law that appears to require all juvenile detention facilities be licensed by the state’s Department of Children & Family Services — which does not license out-of-state facilities.

The justices did not issue an opinion or reasoning for denying the writ.

In some Louisiana jurisdictions, it’s relatively common to send arrested kids to Mississippi or Alabama while they are awaiting adjudication.

In recent years, more than a dozen parishes and cities in Louisiana contracted with juvenile detention centers in those two states to house kids who have been arrested, costing local agencies tens of thousands of dollars, according to records obtained by The Lens. For instance, between May of 2021 and May of 2022, Assumption Parish, where J.D. was arrested, paid the Adams County detention center more than $100,000 dollars to hold 17 juveniles for a total of 594 days.

Some parishes that don’t have their own juvenile detention facilities say they have no other option but to send kids out of state, because detention facilities in other parts of Louisiana are often full or have standing contracts.

The 23rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which encompasses Assumption Parish, opposed Brazan’s petition, for reasons that are not exactly clear, because the state supreme court ruled that the contents of the case file are confidential. But, based on Brazan’s filings, shared with The Lens, it appears that attorneys with the DA’s office argued that the case was moot, because J.D. had already been transferred to the custody of Louisiana OJJ prior to the supreme court issuing a decision.

Brazan argued that the court should take up the larger issue, regardless of J.D.’s current whereabouts. His writ was still pertinent, he argued, because other juveniles were still being held in out-of-state facilities – and because J.D. may again be held in an out-of-state facility if he is arrested again.

With the court’s denial to hear the case, that dispute – whether or not sending kids out of state violates state law – remains an open question, Brazan said.

“We still don’t know the answer to the particular issue that I raised,” Brazen told The Lens after the decision.

A strain on the system
Sending kids out of state likely violates state law, advocates say. Also, teenagers sitting in jails far from their families, lawyers, and communities, are unnecessarily harmed, psychologically, even though they have not yet been convicted of any crime or adjudicated delinquent.

Those advocates say that the most natural solution is to more carefully scrutinize which juveniles require detention, allowing kids charged with more petty, nonviolent crimes to be released to their parents or guardians.

State officials in Louisiana also have no oversight or authority over the jail conditions that affect Louisiana kids – they have no official recourse to challenge those conditions.

Not everyone agrees that sending kids out of state violates state law. in-state licensing requirements don’t apply when kids are sent over state lines, said a spokesperson for the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement (LCLE), which coordinates criminal justice agencies around the state.

“Juvenile Detention facilities in Louisiana are required to be licensed by LDCFS (the Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services),” said Bob Wertz, the spokesperson for LCLE, in an email to The Lens last year. “Juveniles housed in detention facilities outside of Louisiana are a different matter.”

Still, almost everyone agrees that it’s not ideal to send kids out of state. The practice strains the resources of Louisiana sheriff’s offices by requiring deputies to frequently drive long distances to transport the kids back and forth to and out-of-state facilities after arrests and to court appearances. Louisiana jurisdictions also pay much more for out-of-state detention than they would in-state.

To avoid those costs and the distances, officials in several parishes are pushing for the state to fund the construction of a new juvenile detention facility in their areas.

Some are also pushing to once again start treating 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal legal system, which would mean sending them to adult jails as opposed to juvenile detention facilities after arrest. In 2020, a state law took full effect, raising the age of adulthood to 18 in the Louisiana criminal system.

If the court’s decision not to hear the case if based on J.D.’s current place of custody, issue may never be addressed, Brazen said, noting that juvenile court proceedings typically move swiftly, in a way that it would be tough to find a juvenile who remained in out-of-state custody long enough for his case to make its way to the Supreme Court.

Whether or not the practice is legal, something needs to be done to keep kids in state, said Richard Pittman, director of juvenile services with the Louisiana Public Defender Board.

“Rural Louisiana lacks access to detention and they’ve turned to increasingly desperate and questionably legal methods of holding children in custody,” Pittman said. “Our defenders are obligated to defend them and we commend Mr. Brazan for zealously working for his client.”

Answers may involve construction of a new facility or better pre-trial screening, Pittman said. “We need to look for solutions to this problem, which may include increasing detention capacity and should include looking at whether we are putting youths in detention who shouldn’t be there.”

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...