A long-awaited, 72-bed home for youthful offenders convicted of serious crimes is complete and ready to open in Avoyelles Parish. A key feature of Louisiana's 15-year-old effort to overhaul its juvenile justice system, the Acadiana Center for Youth is intended to provide a therapeutic environment for kids in southwest Louisiana.
For the foreseeable future, though, the center is more likely to be used as an emergency shelter in a disaster, if anything at all, according to a spokesman for the Division of Administration.
That’s because Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposed budget contains no money to operate the center, and the Office of Juvenile Justice, which is facing an 11 percent funding cut, has other pressing concerns.
The center cost $20 million, courtesy of state construction funds, and took 3½ years to build with some delays. The contractor is expected to finally deliver the keys within days.
If the proposed cuts remain in place, the Office of Juvenile Justice plans to close five of its 11 regional probation offices, the office's director, Deputy Secretary James Bueche, told the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. The number of probation officers would be cut from 110 to 40, he said, and the office as a whole would eliminate 114 positions.
Such a cut could reverse the state’s progress since 2003 in reducing the number of juvenile offenders in its custody, Bueche said, and that in turn could jeopardize the state’s agreement with the federal government to shift from a punitive corrections system to one aimed at rehabilitation.
Louisiana housed 659 kids in three “secure care” facilities, which are primarily for violent offenders, in the third quarter of 2017, according to Office of Juvenile Justice statistics. That represented an 80 percent decline since 2003, when the Legislature passed a sweeping mandate to transform how the state administers juvenile justice.
The total number of kids in the state system, meanwhile, was reduced by more than half, from nearly 12,000 to about 5,500, and the proportion of those who are in probation and parole programs increased from 62 percent to 78 percent.
The closure of nearly half the state's probation offices — in Lake Charles, Natchitoches, Thibodaux, Hammond and Tallulah — likely would result in more kids winding up in secure care, Bueche told the House committee.
“The caseload sizes are going to be so great that we are going to be ineffective at providing probation services,” Bueche said. "We will be so far from what's considered to be appropriate or best practice."
Placement of kids in the least restrictive appropriate environments is a tenet of Louisiana's still-evolving system, and reform advocates say any type of incarceration should be avoided whenever possible. When longer-term housing is necessary, the ideal is to place youngsters in small facilities with one or two dozen beds that are scattered throughout the state, said Rachel Gassert, policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights.
The state's three secure care facilities, not including the Acadiana center, are in Monroe, Columbia and Bridge City, meaning kids from southwest Louisiana are hours away from their loved ones.
The Acadiana center was purposely located to make it easier for families in that region to stay connected. The 20-acre campus includes nine buildings and recreational accommodations, and the 72 beds are spread among dorms with no more than a dozen each.
But Gassert said the sheer size of the Acadiana center is a hallmark of the outdated incarceration system.
"I don't think we can get to a truly regionalized system, where kids are close to home, with these large correctional facilities, just a few around the state," Gassert said.
In any case, it's not even clear the Acadiana center will be reserved strictly for kids from southwest Louisiana.
The proposed juvenile justice cuts, which amount to $13.8 million, come as the system prepares to absorb an influx of 17-year-old offenders who will transfer from the adult system, the result of the 2016 “raise the age” law.
Reform advocates cheered the law, which aims to steer those younger than 18 away from adult prosecution. But Bueche, who applauded the law, told the Appropriations Committee it also could strain the juvenile system.
Starting July 1, about 70 additional people will need housing in a secure-care juvenile facility over the course of the next year, according to an LSU study. Bueche told the Appropriations Committee the office hopes to house these offenders in the Acadiana center, no matter where they are from.
Gassert noted that the influx of people transferring into the juvenile system will not occur overnight. If the secure-care population continues to decline, she said, the juvenile system might be able to absorb the new arrivals at current capacity levels.
That depends in part, however, on the probation and parole programs currently on the chopping block, Gassert said.
"If the cuts go through and they do lay off all those probation officers, the result will be that more kids will be incarcerated," she said.
Reverting back to higher incarceration rates also could cost the state more in the long run. The $109.6 million in state funds directed to the Office of Juvenile Justice for the current fiscal year is 15 percent below what the office received in 2010, when the number of kids being served in the system was about 45 percent greater than it is at present, according to office statistics.
Gassert pointed to an Annie E. Casey Foundation report on research showing that intervention and treatment are more cost-effective than incarceration. Florida, for example, saved $41.6 million in 2009 by diverting more than 2,000 young people from incarceration to treatment programs, according to state research included in the foundation's report.
Still, Gassert said, the new Acadiana center is preferable to the other three, where some buildings are more than a century old and problems persist. An Orleans Parish judge in 2016 ordered two boys removed from the Bridge City facility, which has been plagued with violence and understaffing.
On one occasion that year, "the youth had free run of the campus for almost five and a half hours before BCCY personnel were able to restore a semblance of order and get the youth off the roof and back into their dorms,” Judge Mark Doherty, of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, wrote.
Although the money spent building the Acadiana center "maybe would have been better spent on a more robust system of alternatives to incarceration,” Gassert said, "we've already sunk it, so looking forward, let's figure out how we can make the best of the situation we are in."
The annual operating cost of the Acadiana center is estimated at $11 million, but Bueche told the Appropriations Committee he hopes the Legislature will provide just enough money to gradually staff and open it over the next year.
That’s not necessarily a safe bet, said Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, the Finance Committee chairman whose district includes the Acadiana center. LaFleur said he "can't say the likelihood" the center will open within a year.
“It’s really in limbo,” he said.
The state might be able to gradually staff and open the center, LaFleur said, but doing so requires a commitment to full funding in future years.
“We shouldn’t have built the thing if we as members weren’t committed to doing what it took,” LaFleur said. “You go through all these plans, you build it and you park it. This is when government clearly doesn’t work.”