Friday, July 11, 2008

Juvenile Justice, Louisiana Style (Part II)

Photo: publik16

Fortunately, the imbroglio that is Act 555, which mandates the closing of the overcrowded Jetson Center for Youth in Baton Rouge in favor of opening "13 or 14" community-based facilities, did not escape the national spotlight, nor did its conspicuous absence of planning to build new facilities.

In the NYT editorial "Louisiana Tries Again on Its Juvenile Justice System," Governor Bobby Jindal is urged to follow the lead of Missouri's infinitely more successful juvenile justice system:
Gov. Bobby Jindal needs to make sure that the state’s new plan truly follows the Missouri model and that Louisiana’s juvenile justice officials implement it this time.

The community-based centers in Missouri are considered a national model that stresses therapy, not punishment, and often includes parents as well as the children. Instead of housing minor offenders and more serious offenders in the same place, as too often happens, Missouri sorts detainees by the seriousness of their crimes.

The oversight continues even after the young persons’ release, through case managers who help former inmates with job placement, school issues and drug or alcohol treatment. Missouri’s system more than pays for itself by keeping recidivism rates low. After completing the program, officials say, less than 10 percent of detainees go back to prison through the juvenile courts.

A team of consultants led by Mark Steward, an expert on the Missouri juvenile justice system, is advising Louisiana on how to proceed. For the sake of some of the state’s most vulnerable children, the Jindal administration should embrace the advice and follow it.
2theadvocate printed a similar article, "Mo. juvenile prison expert to aid Jetson," praising the Missouri model and noting the legislature's seemingly good intentions but hesitation to act:
Mark Steward blames many of Jetson’s problems on the facility’s large population — ranging from 200 to 215 on most days recently. That number has risen from about 160 last summer.

Steward is the director of the Missouri Youth Services Institute and former director of Missouri’s Office of Youth Development. His team has come to Louisiana to teach juvenile prison officials how to implement what’s known as the Missouri model.

Missouri has been acknowledged as the state with the most progressive and best juvenile detention system in the nation. States across the country vie for Steward’s services.

Steward said the Missouri method is based on creating relationships with individual teens, along with a therapeutic group approach in small, regional, homelike facilities.

“It’s not based on power, but on creating respect,” Steward said.

Steward conceived the Missouri model years ago and implemented it in his home state.

“It does work,” he said. “Our recidivism rate is really low.”

Richard Thompson, the new head of Louisiana’s youth development agency, has said he wants the smaller, regional facilities — a reform that lawmakers supported five years ago.

But so far, none has been built.
Knowing what we do about the Jindal administration's tendency to "reform" state services by eliminating them, it's quite easy to imagine Jindal or Richard Thompson shaking Mark Steward's hand, slapping his back, smiling in his face, and sending him promptly back to Missouri.

However, some slight hope has recently been offered by Senator Sharon Broome, who has put a stop to the Office of Youth Development's closing of Jetson by December 31, 2008, and pledges to work with her legislative colleagues to reconsider the intent of Act 555 (legislation signed by Governor Jindal to close Jetson by June 30, 2009). Senator Broome took this action after meeting with Jetson staff who complained that the transition planning had excluded the input of those who work directly with youth detainees.

Senator Broome's concern about Jetson's closing is somewhat heartening, but serious questions remain:

1. If she intends to halt the closing of Jetson Center for Youth until more facilities are established, why are Jetson's employees being offered a 10% salary increase to transfer to the Bridge City Center for Youth, just outside New Orleans?
2. Will former staff of the Jetson Center be replacing Bridge City staff or augmenting it?
3. If the latter, has Act 555 in effect relocated the problems associated with Jetson's overcrowding to the Bridge City Center for Youth? If the former, though I'm sure that Bridge City can use the extra hands, more staff will not create the space to adequately house and serve the young people being transferred from Jetson.
4. Where exactly is the mandate, detailed plan, or commitment to establish more centers, without which no true reform can occur?
5. Will Senator Broome and her colleagues extend their concern about employees of the juvenile justice program to the youths sentenced to the program?

I want to live in a state where there is as much public attention to the treatment of our sociey's most disenfranchised members as to a potential pay raise for legislators.

See here and here for background information on Act 555.


Big Man said...

Great informative post. And you're right about the attention issue. This is coming from an insider.

A.F. said...

Big Man, thank you! Thank you!!