Seventeen-year-olds arrested for nonviolent crimes would be tried and imprisoned under the juvenile justice system under a measure that moved one step closer to becoming law Wednesday.
Senate Bill 324 would reduce crime and save the state money by raising the legal definition of a delinquent from 17 to 18, supporters told the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice, which approved the measure without objection.
SB324, which has already won Senate passage, now goes to the full House. It is one of the legislative priorities of Gov. John Bel Edwards.
A broad coalition of groups — including Blueprint Louisiana (business and community leaders), the United Way of Southeast Louisiana (a nonprofit charity), Louisiana Progress Action (progressive activists) and the Louisiana Interchurch Conference (religious leaders) — supported the bill before the House committee.
Currently, Louisiana is one of only nine states that try 17-year-olds as adults for nonviolent offenses. Senate Bill 324 would raise the age for being tried in the adult criminal justice system to 18, meaning most 17-year-olds would remain in the juvenile justice system.
Those who commit serious crimes like murder or are arrested for dealing drugs would still be tried as adults.
Approximately 6,000 17-year-olds are arrested each year in Louisiana, 90 percent for nonviolent offenses, Joshua Perry, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, a New Orleans-based group, said in an interview.
Perry and state Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, the bill’s sponsor, said too many 17-year-olds get stigmatized for life now by being arrested for youthful stunts, such as a schoolyard brawl, joy riding in a stolen vehicle or possessing a few marijuana joints.
If the law is changed, their arrest as a juvenile will be sealed.
Perry and Morrell also said studies show that 17-year-olds who commit crimes and are tried in the juvenile justice system are less likely to do it again — hence the savings to taxpayers.
Both men acknowledge that jailing a 17-year-old as a juvenile is more expensive than as an adult — $120 per day versus $25 per day — because of the education and rehabilitative programs aimed at getting youthful offenders back on the right track. But they say that the changes will save money because those in the juvenile justice system get tried quicker and ultimately spend less time in prison.
Morrell noted that a major concern is whether the state will have enough money to fully fund the social and educational programs aimed at keeping 17-year-olds from committing more crimes, given how the Louisiana Legislature and Gov. Bobby Jindal cut funding for the Office of Juvenile Justice in recent years.
“We have to have a commitment to fully fund the office,” Morrell said, which is a challenge given the state’s budget deficit.
According to the Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition, “only 8 percent of youth in Louisiana’s juvenile facilities are earning credits towards a high school diploma — against a national average of 46 percent. In every year since Louisiana began grading its public schools, the schools in our juvenile facilities have received failing grades.”
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