When two Lafayette city-parish employees showed up at the Juvenile Assessment Center one day last January to tag a fingerprinting machine with a Lafayette Consolidated Government property sticker, the Sheriff’s Office staffers responsible for running the center were confused.

The tags were being put on the machine, they were told, because the assessment center was transferring to city-parish control. It was the first the Sheriff's Office staffers heard of the transfer plans.

Nine months of mixed signals, non answers and miscommunication followed, culminating in a chaotic period last month when rumors of the assessment center’s sudden demise took the parish’s criminal justice community by storm.

The assessment center, which former Sheriff Mike Neustrom created in 2013, allows many juvenile arrestees to avoid criminal prosecution. Instead, they are referred to youth-services programs within the Sheriff’s Office, outside social services or another avenue that doesn't involve courts. The administrations of Mayor-President Joel Robideaux and Sheriff Mark Garber have discussed on multiple occasions the possibility of the city-parish taking control of the assessment center.

Characterizations of those exchanges differ, so it’s difficult to pinpoint all that transpired prior to the Robideaux administration’s 11th-hour concession last month to renew a funding agreement with the Sheriff’s Office. The agreement will keep the center open as it had been under the Sheriff’s Office purview, albeit with less city-parish funding, for another year.

The future of the assessment center beyond next year is unclear. What is clear is that the Lafayette Parish criminal justice system relies on the assessment center, and no one wants to see it go. What’s also clear is the Sheriff’s Office’s youth services department is in turmoil.

“One week we hear the JAC was going to be closed, the whole department was going to be closed. Another week it wasn’t going to be closed,” said Nedra Green, a former lieutenant in charge of youth services who resigned in May. “I had 20-something staff members at the time, so I’m getting all the stress and tension from all of them, because they are concerned, ‘Will we have jobs?’”

Green and another former Sheriff’s Office youth worker, who did not want to be identified, relayed the episode with the fingerprinting machine in separate interviews. Green frantically called superiors to find out what was happening, but she couldn’t get an answer. She never did, she said, and staff grew restless with the lack of clarity over the following months. Green said she would hear one thing “on the street,” meaning the rumor mill, and another thing from her bosses.

“How do I tell a whole staff it’s not true when we are all hearing from other people this is going to happen?” Green said this month, adding that her former underlings continued pressing her for information after she resigned. “Even from the moment I left up until three weeks ago people were still calling me.”

Four former Sheriff’s Office youth workers, including Green, spoke to The Advocate independently of one another. Green is the only one who agreed to be identified by name for this article. All four said youth workers have been anxious about job security, particularly because the assessment center refers cases to various parts of the youth services department. They were among a wave of eight resignations in the department in the four-month period from May to August. Eight employees remain, with four positions unfilled, according to data provided by the Lafayette Sheriff’s Office.

There were about 28 youth workers when Neustrom turned the keys over to Garber in July 2016, said Rob Reardon, the former corrections director under Neustrom. The scale down in Garber’s youth services department is “disappointing but not surprising,” Reardon said, declining further comment.

Garber campaigned enthusiastically on Neustrom’s reformist legacy, emphasizing social programs and tackling recidivism, and earned the popular outgoing sheriff’s endorsement two months before the October 2015 primary. The endorsement appears to have helped, as Garber’s own internal polling showed him trailing Scott Police Chief Chad Leger by double digits prior to Neustrom’s weighing in, according to The Independent. Garber wound up beating Leger by comfortable margins in both the primary and runoff elections.

But Green said multiple mental health professional positions in her department went unfilled after Garber became sheriff. In addition to the uncertainty surrounding the assessment center’s future, Green said, her staff was rankled by confusion over Garber’s broader agenda.

“That made staff uneasy,” Green said. “If they are not replacing that person, and it’s been six months or nine months, and somebody hasn’t been replaced, what’s really going on?”

‘Not our job’

Garber said in an interview that he wants to focus more attention and resources on the Sheriff’s Office’s “core function,” which he said is law enforcement, and less on the rehabilitation and intervention programs that Neustrom pioneered.

Those programs help reduce crime, Garber said, and he wants to ensure they continue at sufficient levels. But he said he doesn’t think the Sheriff’s Office should be the one running them.

Last spring, for example, Garber agreed to allow Woodlake Addiction Recovery Center to take over operations of the Acadiana Recovery Center, an addiction rehab facility. Meanwhile, patrol shifts have increased from 48 to 80, according to Sheriff’s Office spokesman John Mowell.

“It’s not really our job to run a rehab clinic. It’s not our job to run intervention programs,” Garber said. “Our core function is to protect lives and property, and to incarcerate people who need to be removed from society. That’s really what we are supposed to be doing, so y’all can go about your daily lives, relatively threat free.”

Garber still espouses progressive-sounding rhetoric, stating, for example, that “if arresting and incarcerating would work, Louisiana would be the safest place on the earth.” He described the assessment center as “a non-traditional approach that absolutely has worked resoundingly well,” adding that he is committed to keeping it open “in some form or fashion” if all else fails.

But another agency, such as city-parish government, the School Board or the court system is better suited for the responsibility.

“The Sheriff’s Office would be about 4th or 5th on my list of likely candidates,” he said.

A big-time panic

Sheriff’s Office staff evaluated 477 juveniles at the assessment center in the first nine months of 2017, according to Sheriff’s Office statistics. More than half landed in diversion programs, and many would have otherwise wound up on Janet Brown’s caseload.

Brown, who leads the juvenile defense team in the 15th Judicial District Public Defender’s Office, was startled when she arrived to court one morning last summer to find nearly three dozen new cases on her docket. Brown’s caseload had inexplicably ballooned by about a third, she recalled recently, and it was all “silly stuff, like disturbing the peace.”

A friend in the courthouse told her the Juvenile Assessment Center, the Sheriff’s Office program aimed at reducing juvenile prosecutions, had stopped taking referrals. It was alarming, but Brown’s informant said it was only “a hiccup,” and her caseload soon returned to normal. She never found out what happened.

“Something was going on, we just didn’t know what,” Brown said. “I’m OK with a hiccup, but when you’re telling me it’s permanent, that’s a problem.”

A couple months later, in mid-October, Brown heard that her fears were becoming a reality. The chatter before a routine meeting of various people who work in juvenile justice consisted of rumors that the assessment center would shut down imminently, at the end of the month. That jolted Brown into crisis mode.

“I was big-time panicking,” Brown said. “I was losing it.”

The assessment center was not, in fact, on the verge of closing. But it was in jeopardy.

‘Triage’

The Lafayette city-parish government typically helps pay for the assessment center with an annual funding agreement that provideds $267,000. But Robideaux’s administration decided earlier this year not to renew the agreement in order to move the assessment center to the Lafayette Parish Juvenile Detention Home, which the city-parish owns and operates.

The formal agreement expired Oct. 31, and Garber said he was caught off guard to learn of the decision exactly three weeks in advance, via email from Chief Administrative Officer Lowell Duhon.

Duhon’s email cites the “Raise the Age Louisiana” law, which requires most 17-year-old defendants to be tried in juvenile court rather than adult court, starting in July 2018. That will stretch the capacity, and therefore the budget, of the 32-bed Juvenile Detention Home, Duhon wrote.

“We were looking at all kinds of ways to make some cuts and be prepared for whenever the 17 year olds were coming in,” Duhon said in an interview. “We really didn’t know what that was going to entail.”

The Robideaux administration previously “offered to do the assessments in house,” but withdrew the offer after hearing concerns from various individuals who work in juvenile justice, Duhon’s email states. But the decision to pull funding was still in place.

Several days of chaos ensued, with Garber frantically calling judges, City-Parish council members and anyone else he knew with an interest in the well-regarded juvenile assessment center.

“I was trying to triage essentially,” Garber said. “I was in a position with no information other than $267,000 was suddenly being cut. Without that money we couldn’t see any way to not severely restrict and reduce operation.”

He sent letters to the six municipal police chiefs in Lafayette Parish alerting them of an upcoming “extreme reduction” in services at the assessment center. Lacking city-parish funding, Garber told the chiefs, he would impose user fees on the police departments based on the number of juveniles they send to the assessment center.

That didn't go over well with the chiefs, who rely on the assessment center as an alternative to releasing misdemeanor arrestees to their parents with court summons, according to interviews with chiefs from Youngsville, Carencro, Scott and Broussard. Chiefs from Lafayette and Duson did not respond to interview requests.

Sometimes the arrested teenagers wouldn't show up to court, and they were frequently picked up again within a few days on similar offenses. In that system, the police departments had no way of tracking who was being arrested.

“A lot of times, by them going to the JAC, it lets us know, look, is this a family in need of some services? Is this a family that is in crisis? Is there something else going on in this house that makes this child act the way they are acting out?" said Carencro Police Chief David Anderson.

But coughing up user fees likely would have dissuaded municipal police from sending teenage arrestees to the assessment center at all, said Youngsville Chief Rickey Boudreaux.

"It was almost like we were going to go back to the old way of doing it, just cut them loose on misdemeanor summons," Boudreaux said. "Budget wise it may leave me no choice but to do it that way"

Finally, with prodding by City-Parish Council Chairman Kenneth Boudreaux, the administration agreed to provide $200,000. Garber said he heard about the agreement third hand from a councilperson he declined to name.

“I responded to subsequent inquiries by the courts by saying, ‘Well, I have this email that says there is no funding and I have a verbal (assurance) that there is partial funding,’” Garber said.

Garber said he later confirmed the agreement, again verbally, with someone in Robideaux’s administration. However, he still hadn’t received formal written notification as of Nov. 9, more than a week after the previous contract expired.

Duhon confirmed the administration had agreed to contribute $200,000 this year, but he said plans for next year are yet to be determined.

“We still want the option to continue looking at it,” he said.

Looking for a quarterback

Asked why he waited until Oct. 10 to send his email to the Sheriff’s Office, Duhon replied “it should not have gone that long.” Judges and others were strongly opposed to combining assessments with detention, he said, because they feared diversion programs would suffer.

“I was surprised at how much of that resistance I got,” Duhon said. “These guys are really passionate about the whole deal, and I get it.”

A Robideaux assistant said Garber’s subordinates knew the budget would not contain funding for the assessment center, and it was the Sheriff’s Office that pushed back on the administration’s plans. Garber said discussions over the last year were “just discussions,” without clear resolution. He seemed perplexed when asked how far the discussions had advanced.

“I’m not clear on how advanced the discussions were, and I was part of them,” he said.

The line item that usually provides funding for the assessment center was not in the budget Robideaux proposed in August, nor in the one the City-Parish Council adopted the next month. That budget went into effect on Nov. 1, and the council has yet to consider a budget amendment that reflects the Robideaux administration’s verbal commitment to provide funding for the center.

No one mentioned the issue during budget hearings last summer, said Boudreaux, the council chairman who helped secure the commitment for another year of city-parish funding. Boudreaux, a former district attorney’s office employee who conducted juvenile assessments after charges had been filed, said he understands firsthand the importance of evaluating youthful arrestees before booking. The issue is “dear to me,” he said.

“Who is going to quarterback this issue going forward?” Boudreaux said. “Someone is going to have to take ownership of this to make sure it doesn’t fall through the cracks again.”

Follow Ben Myers on Twitter, @blevimyers.