At the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office, we house just a handful of 17-year-olds each day in our adult jail. We wish that number were zero.
But because Louisiana automatically prosecutes 17-year-olds as adults — even for the most minor offenses — these kids walk through our doors. It’s a bad situation, for them and for us.
The mission of the Corrections Division is to provide quality, cost-effective management of offenders within the system, while building skills to successfully re-integrate them back into society.
Our staff tries hard, but adult jails cannot prepare 17-year-olds for success. Outside, these kids are juniors in high school. But in the jail — unlike in the juvenile detention center — we can’t offer a high school education. Our staff is not equipped to manage the unique needs of adolescents. Facilities and programs designed for adults are simply not right for kids.
A 17-year-old is a work in progress whose character has not been entirely formed yet. That’s why parents work so hard to see that their kids are going to good schools and associating with a positive peer group. It boggles the mind that we would put such young kids in adult facilities. Most offenders we house have been through the system before. They are not the right peers for 17-year-old children.
Louisiana is one of only nine states that prosecute every 17-year-old as an adult. There’s a good reason that the great majority of our sister states, including Mississippi and Alabama, include 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system. It’s better for public safety.
National research shows that 17-year-olds prosecuted as adults are more likely to re-offend. Studies repeatedly show that teens who go through the adult system are not only more likely to commit future crimes — they are more likely than comparable kids in the juvenile system to escalate from relatively minor law-breaking to more serious and violent crimes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that processing a minor as an adult increases recidivism by as much as 34 percent. And in Louisiana, recidivism rates for youth released from the Department of Corrections are more than double those of similarly aged youth released from the Office of Juvenile Justice’s secure facilities.
Including 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system also improves safety in our jails. Youth in adult facilities are at greater risk of sexual assault that any other group of prisoners, thus the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act requires that we take steps to protect minors in our facilities. This creates numerous challenges for the management of our jail. There are other dangers that confront 17-year-olds in adult jails: The suicide rate for youth in adult facilities is 36 times greater than the rate for prisoners over 18.
Like most in Louisiana, our jail was not designed to house youth under 18 separately from adults, as required by law. Retrofitting would be difficult and expensive. While we do our best to protect young people, simply moving them to more appropriate juvenile facilities will keep them safer and make better use of staff time and public money.
Our first responsibility is to keep the public safe. We’re proud of the work that our staff does to achieve that goal. But sometimes, we operate under laws that make it harder to protect the public. Lafayette Parish has juvenile justice programs and facilities designed for youth, but 17-year-olds cannot take advantage of them because the law labels them as adults.
When the law stands in the way of public safety, cost-effectiveness and common sense, it is time for change.
Right now, the Legislature is considering Senate Bill 324, which will raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18. The bill doesn’t affect district attorneys’ discretion to prosecute those few 17-year-olds who commit serious or violent crimes in the adult system. But the vast majority of 17-year-olds are arrested for minor, non-violent crimes. Those youth should remain in the juvenile justice system, where the possibility of reform is far greater.
Raising the age will decrease crime in our neighborhoods and keep kids safer. We hope the Legislature will pass this very smart public safety bill.
Mike Neustrom is the sheriff of Lafayette Parish. Rob Reardon is director of corrections for the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office.