Some 17-year-olds to enter Louisiana juvenile justice system
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana will stop routing 17-year-olds through the adult criminal justice system when they are arrested for non-violent crimes and instead will steer them to the juvenile prosecution system, under a law change taking effect Friday.
The majority-Republican Legislature overwhelmingly approved the “Raise the Age” law nearly three years ago with the support of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. The measure was promoted as a way to rehabilitate young offenders and lessen the chances they would commit new crimes and become habitual offenders.
“In almost every other measure of the law, 17-year-olds are still children, and I think parents would agree. It just doesn’t make any sense that we would treat all 17-year-olds as adults in the justice system,” said Rachel Gassert, policy director with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which pushed for the change.
The new law, sponsored by New Orleans Democratic Sen. J.P. Morrell, has two phases.
The juvenile justice system will start handling 17-year-olds charged with non-violent crimes Friday and thereafter. Offenders of that age charged with violent crimes — such as rape, armed robbery or aggravated assault — will move to the juvenile system in July 2020, but with a caveat.
District attorneys still can charge the 17-year-olds accused of serious crimes, such as homicide, as adults at any time. They just won’t automatically be routed into the adult criminal justice system.
“At its heart, the Raise the Age Act means we refuse to throw away our young people, even when they make mistakes,” Morrell said in a statement.
At the time of passage, Louisiana was one of nine states that automatically treated 17-year-olds as adults for prosecution. That number has dropped to four states, according to advocacy group Campaign for Youth Justice, though some law changes haven’t been fully phased in yet.
To ready for the shift, the Office of Juvenile Justice will partially open a new youth lock-up facility in Bunkie in mid-March. The agency said it hired a dozen more probation officers and increased availability of some community-based services for offenders who won’t be mandated to a youth prison facility. It also is working on plans to expand local alternatives to detention, such as electronic monitoring and other pre-trial diversion programs.
James Bueche, Office of Juvenile Justice deputy secretary, said he’s “fairly confident” his agency is ready to handle the influx of youth offenders. But he acknowledges the difficulty in determining what that influx will look like.
One study suggested the juvenile justice system could expect hundreds of 17-year-olds on probation and several dozen needing placement in a secure facility each year, but noted a limited ability to make assumptions.
“Nobody has a crystal ball, and we’re not going to be able to predict what the numbers are going to look like. But we prepared the best we can,” Bueche said.
Bueche is asking lawmakers for a nearly $14 million financing increase next year, much of it in response to the law change.
Juvenile justice advocates hailed Louisiana’s Legislature for agreeing to raise the adult prosecution age, saying the adult system places teenagers at a greater risk of physical and sexual assault; often isolates them for long periods; deprives them of education; and puts them at increased risk of suicide.
Gassert believes the law change will improve safety, because she said the juvenile justice system has more educational and social services programming that could help keep youth offenders from committing additional crimes.
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