In the face of the worst fiscal crisis in recent history, while raising taxes and slashing vital services, the Louisiana Senate has mistakenly passed a state budget that adds more than $3.5 million to operate unnecessary new juvenile prison beds at a time of falling juvenile crime.
Gov. Bobby Jindal wants the money to open a new juvenile prison, the Acadiana Center for Youth, in May 2016. The House, rightly concerned about feeding an addiction to incarceration at a time of shrinking budgets, slashed the money from the budget. Then the Senate put it back.
The Senate didn’t approve necessary increases for our public schools. It didn’t fund all our waiver slots for children with developmental disabilities to live with dignity in their homes. It couldn’t come up with a million dollars for transitional supports for children aging out of foster care.
Instead, we got a multimillion-dollar increase in spending for juvenile incarceration. That $3.5 million is just start-up costs. In future fiscal years, we’re going to have to pay the full carrying cost for those 72 beds: $11 million per year, or $419 for each imprisoned child, every day.
Louisiana doesn’t need to add juvenile prison beds. Take it from the secretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice, Dr. Mary Livers, who in February of this year publicly told the state’s Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission that she doesn’t need more beds. But the Senate’s budget runs contrary to that claim, actually increasing the number of prison beds by maintaining full operational funds for OJJ’s two existing juvenile prisons while bringing a whole new prison online.
In fact, all the data suggest we need fewer juvenile prison beds. Louisiana made dramatic progress reducing incarceration from 2001 to 2006, including shutting down the state’s worst juvenile prisons. But since 2006, we’ve stagnated, with juvenile incarceration falling only 16 percent while juvenile arrests dropped by 40 percent. And while Louisiana plateaued, juvenile incarceration decreased by 45 percent in the nation as a whole.
We still have a way to go in shrinking our juvenile prison population. Our neighbor Texas — not remotely soft on crime — acted in 2007 to limit state juvenile prisons only to youth adjudicated for felony offenses. Meanwhile, 57 percent of children in Louisiana’s youth prisons are locked up for an offense that involved neither violence nor weapons.
Unnecessary imprisonment is bad for our budgets and bad for public safety. The research is clear: the further a young person penetrates the juvenile justice system, the more likely he or she is to be arrested as an adult. This is especially true when youth are incarcerated in secure facilities. Louisiana consistently ranks at the bottom of states in incarcerating its residents and in the welfare of its children. The Senate just doubled down on trends that we should be doing everything we can to reverse.
Fortunately, it’s not too late. Over the next few days, a conference committee of senators and representatives will meet to resolve the differences between the budgets approved by the House and the Senate. The conference committee could simply adopt the House’s juvenile justice funding plan, refusing to fund the opening of an unnecessary prison in the face of jaw-dropping budget deficits.
But the committee could do more. It could write language requiring that the Office of Juvenile Justice save money by closing one old bed, in its existing and outdated youth facilities, for every new bed that comes online. That strategy would save money this year and hold down costs in every subsequent year by promoting the right-sizing of a juvenile justice system whose reforms have failed to keep pace with our sister states. The ensuing savings could be reinvested in services that actually promote better life outcomes for children.
We could use newer, high-quality facilities located around the state so that youth can remain closer to home — but we do not need to increase our juvenile prison footprint, at enormous expense and at a time when all of the data suggest we could effectively and safely serve more children in the community.
Rachel Gassert is policy director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.