Unusual for this legislative session, lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday — including from one witness who had been one of the Jena 6 — asking to withdraw money from the proposed operating funds of a government agency.
Fearful that the Office of Juvenile Justice would expand the capacity of facilities that incarcerate youthful criminals, rather than close older units as it ramps up a new one, legal aid advocates said legislators should cut the agency’s budget by $3.5 million to make sure that more jail space is not created.
The money is designated for staffing and the first few months of operation of a 72-bed “secured care facility” called the Acadiana Center for Youth, which is under construction in Bunkie. Removing the funding would force the Office of Juvenile Justice to close the “beds” in older facilities to ensure enough money would be available for the new Bunkie facility, argued Rachel Gassert, policy director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that is the policy reform arm of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.
“I’m asking that the Office of Juvenile Justice not get $3.5 million,” Gassert said.
The House Appropriations Committee took testimony Tuesday from the public on House Bill 1, the instrument that would authorize spending by state government.
Already reeling from proposed cuts to state agency operating budgets, the panel mostly heard from people who use the government services that are being reduced and whose pleas are to restore funding.
The committee heard from handicapped and blind people, among others, who told their personal stories and how the loss of government services would affect their lives.
“These are some of the most hardest times we can spend,” Chairman Jim Fannin said of public testimony days. The Jonesboro Republican at times visibly choked up during the testimony.
Legislators are seeking a way to close a $1.6 billion gap between expected revenues and spending estimates without deeply cutting higher education and health care budgets. But Acadiana Center was one of the few projects to get an increase in funding.
The tendency, not just in Louisiana but around the country, in situations when new facilities are added, is to keep the older units and thereby expand the size of the institutions, Gassert said.
The fear is that the state will fill those slots rather than let them sit empty. “It can only lead to unnecessary incarceration,” said Theo Shaw, a community advocate for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Mary Livers, who is in charge of the state Office of Juvenile Justice, says their fears are unfounded as the administration never intended to expand the capacity.
“We are definitely trying to downsize the size of each facility that we operate,” Livers said in a phone interview after the hearing. “We’re trying to modernize the facilities so that the environment is conducive to real meaningful change.”
The plan is to reduce the population of the Bridge City facility in Jefferson Parish from 132 youth to 105, and move 44 incarcerated youth from the 144-inmate Swanson facility in Monroe to Bunkie, she said. Over the past decade, Louisiana has been moving from large institutions to smaller, regional therapeutic facilities. Designs are being drawn for a new 72-bed facility in Baton Rouge, Livers said.
If the $3.5 million is cut by the Legislature, Livers said, the new Bunkie facility will not be able to open.
“It’ll be a catastrophic waste for it to be sitting there and not used,” Livers said.
Shaw said he has spent the past three years interviewing juvenile inmates at the secured facilities and found that a number of them are far from home and others would have been released if they had a lawyer to file the necessary paperwork.
Gassert said her organization hopes the money becomes available to provide lawyers for the youthful offenders. Once a case is disposed of and the juvenile is incarcerated, the only way a sentence can be officially shortened, which is allowed for good behavior and other reasons, is for a lawyer to file for an order in court. Up to 65 percent of the youth end up serving their full term, even those who otherwise qualify to be released earlier.
“Because these kids don’t have attorneys, they end up stuck in the system,” said state Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington.
Shaw was part of the Jena 6, who were black high schoolers charged with attempted murder after fighting with a white student.
Though he says he played no role in the attack, Shaw spent seven months in jail because his family could not afford to post bail.
The plight of the black students attracted thousands in 2007 to support them. Shaw eventually pleased no contest to misdemeanor simple battery.
He received a full scholarship and this fall will attend the University of Washington School of Law.
After testifying, legislators lined up to have their photo taken with him.
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