Days before the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in a case that will decide the fates of inmates sentenced to life while they were juveniles, criminal justice experts in Lafayette urged reforms that would help at-risk youths instead of locking them away.

Hosted by the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office, the forum on Thursday was the third this year in an ongoing series aimed to spark conversations with the public about social issues and how they relate to the criminal justice system.

Bart Lubow, retired director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, explained how laws passed in response to the crack epidemic of the 1980s led to an inordinate number of juveniles being transferred from juvenile court to adult court and how the numbers skew toward disproportionately affecting minority communities.

“They are, in fact, the result of both structural differences in both the opportunities communities have, as well as the bias that continues to operate in the juvenile justice system,” Lubow said.

About 92,850 juveniles in 2006 were in U.S. jails, according to data from the Casey Foundation. And that number has since grown to more than 100,000, with Louisiana ranking second for the most juveniles tried and sentenced as adults to life in prison, Lubow said.

It’s an issue set for argument next Tuesday before the U.S. Supreme Court, in which a Louisiana case may ultimately decide the fates of those lifers.

In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court will determine whether its 2012 ruling — that mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles — will apply retroactively.

Louisiana is one of four states — along with Pennsylvania, Michigan and California — that account for about half of all adult life-without-parole sentences for juveniles among the 34 states that allow it, according to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization that focuses on U.S. incarceration.

Most of those sentences are handed down in Orleans, Jefferson and East Baton Rouge parishes, which rank among the top seven jurisdictions in the U.S. for adult life sentences for people younger than 18, according to a September report by the Phillips Black Project.

Without a change, “we will condemn our children and our communities to worse outcomes than they deserve,” Lubow said.

Before Thursday’s presentation, Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mike Neustrom said he supports changing the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18 and has been advocating to change the law in the upcoming legislative session.

“There is some interest in this as a better way to treat juveniles,” Neustrom said.

Holly Howat, executive director of the Lafayette Parish Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, said issues concerning youth offenders are being addressed in Lafayette.

She pointed out successes with the 3-year-old Juvenile Assessment Center, where youth offenders are assessed for possible diversion and social programs instead of going straight to a juvenile jail.

At the JAC, the juvenile is fingerprinted and drug-tested while case workers review school and criminal records and use psychological screening tools to provide a comprehensive picture of the individual’s situation.

From there, officials determine whether the juvenile is eligible for diversion programs, pretrial programs or juvenile detention.

The handful of programs available to youth offenders are also available to the juvenile public before they encounter law enforcement, including intervention, behavioral and family therapy, and mentoring programs, Howat said.

Of the 947 juveniles in Lafayette Parish who encountered law enforcement in 2014, about a third were sent to the juvenile detention center.

Another third were accepted into diversion programs, with the rest pending charges after either declining diversion or being released to their guardians.

Howat urged the importance of providing these support systems for at-risk youth.

“Ignoring them, blaming them, locking them up,” Howat said, “will not make the crime go away.

Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.