For roughly four years, 17-year-olds in Louisiana were considered juveniles in the eyes of the criminal legal system. They could be detained pre-trial in juvenile detention centers across the state. Judges could place them in state custody in juvenile facilities.

Then, in mid-April, they became adults, thanks to a change in law championed by Gov. Jeff Landry that moved the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 17. 

The change is likely to significantly reduce the number of youth detained statewide, as newly arrested 17-year-olds are booked into traditional parish jails that hold adults.

Despite those likely reductions, a bill quietly making its way through the state legislature could greatly expand the number of juvenile detention beds throughout Louisiana – and if it passes, change the configuration of the state’s entire juvenile system, by housing state-sentenced juveniles in local facilities.

Currently, once Louisiana teens are adjudicated delinquent — the juvenile-court term for being found guilty — they are moved to “secure-care” facilities, the juvenile equivalent of prisons, run by the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ). Juvenile-court judges can also opt to place youth in less restrictive state programs, known as “non-secure care.”

The proposed bill, authored by Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, would change that flow, by providing Louisiana state funding, through grants, to parish governments that aspire to build new local juvenile-detention facilities. 

The grants also come with a mandate: all newly built local juvenile-detention centers must house both pre-trial juveniles and youth who have been sentenced to state custody.

The result would be a system configured like Louisiana’s adult system, which uses local lockups to house state prisoners. 

In Louisiana, unlike most other states, parish jails have long performed double duty with adults, by detaining defendants until trial and holding sentenced prisoners for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. More than half of the 26,000 prisoners in DOC custody are held in 104 local parish jails, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOC reimburses local sheriffs and private-facility operators for every state prisoner held. 

This longtime local-state framework for adults has its proponents, who note that jails largely started taking state prisoners to relieve crowding in state facilities and that local authorities may have more insight into the training and re-entry needs of their own community members. 

Yet critics point to the sheriffs who built far-bigger jails than needed, to accommodate a glut of lucrative state prisoners. Plus, state-sentenced prisoners held locally have long complained that sheriffs focus on revenues while maintaining more chaotic conditions and scant programs, when compared with the state prison system.

Details of how the new juvenile configuration could play out are still unknown. But some youth advocates worry that it could lead to more kids being locked up in troubled, understaffed juvenile-detention facilities that lack teen-specific programs and staff trained in adolescent behavior. Critics familiar with the adult system also fear that sheriffs might take similar financial shortcuts in the care of the children in their charge, increasing revenue while skimping on costs of kids’ housing and programs, including education, nutrition, and healthcare. 

“I’m concerned about a pay-to-play scheme, where you have municipalities opening facilities with a promise of state dollars,” said David Utter, a civil-rights attorney who has worked on juvenile-justice cases in Louisiana for several decades. “It incentivizes the sheriff paying as little as possible to house those people – because everything that it doesn’t cost him is pure profit.”

Last week, after clearing the Senate with no opposition, the bill unanimously passed out of the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice. It is now awaiting a hearing at the House Appropriations Committee. 

For parishes with no pre-trial detention beds: state construction and operating money

Proponents of the legislation, which has received no public pushback as it’s made its way through the Senate, point to the fact that many Louisiana jurisdictions have no space to detain arrested kids pre-trial, while they make their way through court. 

That creates its own set of problems. Parishes that lack their own juvenile-detention center pay other parishes to hold kids pre-trial — or even send them out of state. 

In 2022, The Lens reported that several Louisiana cities and parishes had been sending pre-adjudicated youth to out-of-state detention facilities hours away in Mississippi and Alabama, potentially violating a state law that requires juvenile detention facilities to be licensed by the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS. (The Louisiana Supreme Court has declined to rule on the question.) 

Kids held out-of-state are far away from their families and lawyers. Their hometowns pay out-of-state facilities thousands of dollars for their care and transportation home for court appearances. (Parishes must pay for children’s detention pre-trial; the state begins to pick up the tab once children are adjudicated delinquent.)

The out-of-state detention arrangements seem to be a precipitating factor for Cloud’s legislation, which creates the grants but has not yet paired them with a specific dollar amount. 

Certainly, some local officials have been unhappy with out-of-state detentions, but their jurisdictions simply couldn’t afford to build their own pre-trial detention centers. They urged the state to assist them. 

Better to keep our kids closer to home, those proponents say. “Most of us have been contacted by our local law enforcement and our judges regarding the holding of pre-adjudicated youth in their regions and across Louisiana,” Sen. Cloud said at a committee hearing earlier this month. “We’ve seen the news stories of Louisiana shipping their pre-adjudicated youth over to Alabama, the cost associated with it, and the limited access of the families.”

Juvenile-detention centers constructed with the proposed grants must dedicate 30 percent of their bedspace to sentenced juveniles who would otherwise be shipped off to state custody. As with the adult system, the state — this time, OJJ — would pay local facilities a per diem for each kid committed to state custody.

As Cloud describes it, there are two reasons for the state-bed mandate within her bill. 

First, since there is a shortage of juvenile secure-care beds, adding local beds for state-sentenced youth would add important bed space at that level. The state money will also help parishes pay operating costs for their new juvenile facilities, through “state dollars attached to each juvenile.”

“Pre-adjudicated youth cycle in and out of these facilities, and so it’s not uncommon for there to be empty bed spaces on any given day,” Cloud said. “And… you still have (to pay) the overhead (as you wait) to fill that bed.”

Will Louisiana now build a glut of juvenile beds?

For several years, Louisiana juvenile facilities at both the state and local level have struggled to provide enough beds to house arrested youth. 

Richard Pittman, director of juvenile services for the Louisiana Public Defender Board watched as there was a sudden spike in need a few years ago. “The (lack of bed space) problems at OJJ developed during the period of intense increases in violent crime overall and violent crime by juveniles in particular,” said Pittman, who sees those pressures are lessening as crime rates drop across the state and country. But now that’s past, he said. “All the data we have is telling us that is over.” 

Plus, because of the new state law, a big chunk of juvenile offenders — 17-year-olds — are no longer part of Louisiana’s juvenile system. 

That will leave plenty of beds at the state level for juveniles age 16 and below, said Pittman, who doesn’t understand the state’s move to build new beds. “I think they’re overcorrecting,” he said.

While statewide juvenile crime data is not regularly published, and OJJ did not respond to requests for information, crime as a whole has been dropping across the country. In New Orleans, according to data compiled by the Metropolitan Crime Commission, the rate of most major crimes — including homicide, shootings, armed robberies, and carjackings — have dropped between 40 and 50 percent over the last several years.

“So, why would further increasing the capacity of the juvenile-justice system be necessary?” Pittman asked.

Despite the data, Sen. Cloud sees new juvenile detention facilities as a necessity, she told The Lens.

“We want to see all juvenile crime go away, but we live in a fallen world, and that’s just not a reasonable expectation,” Cloud said. “There is going to be crime and there needs to be consequences.”

‘They lose hope’ – kids charged nonviolence often overstay

In November 2022, Curtis Nelson, a former prosecutor who was then OJJ’s deputy secretary, warned juvenile judges that both state secure and non-secure care facilities were at full capacity. 

Judges were still placing youth in state custody. But OJJ could not accept any more youth, Nelson said.

That was 18 months ago. 

Opinions differ about how to eliminate the backlog.  One option is to create more bedspace.

OJJ has announced plans to construct a new 72-bed facility in Baker, Louisiana, north of Baton Rouge. It will be on the campus of the former Jetson Center for Youth, which was shut down in 2014 after allegations of abuse. 

Farther north in Monroe, OJJ has been preparing to open a new section within the Swanson Center for Youth at Monroe, and also to reopen portions of Swanson that were closed a few years ago, to repair damage incurred during a riot there. 

When asked for construction updates on those facilities, OJJ did not respond. 

Louisiana has 13 licensed juvenile detention centers across the state, as of 2022, according to the office of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor. Altogether, there seem to be fewer than 1,000 available slots. During the first quarter of 2024, the most recent data available from OJJ, the state accommodated a total of 827 youth who were adjudicated delinquent and placed in state custody: 431 youth in secure-care facilities and 396 in non-secure care locations such as group homes.

In Louisiana, after a juvenile judge sentences kids, they must be transported to a state facility within 14 days, according to law. But with no slots available at the state level, it fell to local detention centers to keep the backlog of adjudicated kids. In October, the Louisiana Illuminator reported that there were 62 kids awaiting placement statewide. When asked last week how many youth were waiting to be placed, an OJJ spokesperson did not respond.

Opinions differ about how to best eliminate the backlogs.

Nelson himself said that, in a system where 3 out of 4 kids were placed in secure-care facilities for nonviolent crimes, sentences must be more responsive to the progress of each youth.

OJJ youth in custody for nonviolent offenses should be released in nine months, Nelson said. But those statutes are rarely followed, he said. 

Last summer, at a meeting of the state’s Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission, Nelson testified that juveniles held too long in state facilities were at the root of many of the disciplinary problems he saw. He recounted conversations with kids who were involved in escapes and violent incidents at Bridge City Center for Youth. “Every last one of those kids has told me: ‘At a certain point, I lost hope,’” he said.

The kids were clear, Nelson said. They said, “I worked your program, I was compliant,’” he said. “‘But when I went to court, I was told to go back and do another four months and we’ll revisit. I went to court the second time and they told me the same thing: ‘Go back, keep doing good things.’”

According to the Louisiana Illuminator, last fall 77 percent of kids in secure-care facilities were there for non-violent offenses. Yet the average length of stay was close to 15 months, Nelson said.

“What I am telling you is that there are children languishing in the state’s custody,” Nelson said. 

At the hearing a year ago, Pittman listened to Nelson’s testimony and told the commission that day that Nelson’s comments suggested that, when appropriate, judges needed to reward kids by setting them free.

“I will state explicitly what I think you have implied, which is that we need to be more willing to order these children to be released,” Pittman said. 

Juvenile advocates say that’s the best solution. They would prefer to keep more adjudicated children in their homes, in their communities, with wraparound services or other supports to keep them stable and productive — and out of state custody.

From a policy perspective, Cloud’s bill “sounds like a disaster,” said Utter, who while at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana helped to kickstart pre-Katrina reform efforts that cut secure-care numbers in half – without any negative impacts on public safety, data showed.

“The problem with jail and prison beds, that if you build them, they will fill them,” Utter said. “And detaining kids, locking kids up away from their homes out of their communities, is the least effective, and the most expensive way to deal with juvenile delinquency.” 

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...