Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards supports raising the age for criminal prosecutions _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Gov. John Bel Edwards, left, speaks to a Raise the Age rally on the state capital steps for Juvenile Justice System reform.

Though four 17-year-olds recently have been raped in adult jails, a Louisiana Senate committee accepted arguments Tuesday that the state simply couldn’t afford to start the two-year-old law that would put offenders that age into juvenile facilities.

The Louisiana Senate Judiciary A Committee voted 4-2 to delay the “Raise the Age” Act, which was supposed to go into effect July 1. The first stage of the transition would involve nonviolent offenders.

Senate Bill 248 now goes to the full Senate, which overwhelming adopted Raise the Age in 2016. Raise the Age would stop treating 17-year-olds as adults, as 18-year-olds are, and instead adjudicate their offenses through the juvenile justice system.

SB248, sponsored by state Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, initially would have postponed the first stage of the transition until June 30, 2020.

Amid considerable opposition, Johns agreed early Tuesday with the Governor’s Office to amend the start date to March 1, 2019, provided adequate funding is found by the end of this year.

Gov. John Bel Edwards can accept a delay until 2019, providing language would make clear the law would take effect earlier, if funding became available, Richard Carbo, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, said after the committee vote. He added that 2019 is a hard date.

Prosecutors and sheriffs argue that because of the state’s fiscal situation, there’s not enough money to effectively start the programs and hire the additional personnel that the changes require.

“The state said we’re not ready to implement,” testified Calcasieu District Attorney John DeRosier, of Lake Charles. “This is going to be a big deal for us.”

Effectively, the measure would keep 17-year-olds under the adult criminal justice system should they commit crimes for at least another year, perhaps longer.

Rachel Gassert, the policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, warned senators to brace for expensive lawsuits as four 17-year-olds recently had been assaulted in the adult detention facilities in three different parishes. The latest one was in Union Parish, where a 17-year-old girl was raped while detoxing from methamphetamine in an isolation cell.

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A lawsuit was filed seeking damages from East Baton Rouge Parish taxpayers because a 17-year-old inmate was sexually assaulted in Parish Prison. Officials do not deny that the incident occurred, and the inmate’s cellmate was charged with rape.

Three of the four assaulted juveniles were being held on nonviolent charges, Gassert said, adding “It's putting kids in this state at risk, a very real risk.

“We’ve had two years to prepare,” Gassert said, noting that next year’s budget won’t start being voted on until next week. “It is absurd that we are talking about delay.”

Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, says he would like to implement Raise the Age Act today, but the state doesn’t have the money available. The Office of Juvenile Justice is not ready yet to accept 17-year-old criminal offenders.

The Office of Juvenile Justice is facing a $10 million cut in its annual budget because of expected shortfalls in revenues for the fiscal year beginning July 1. To continue paying for incarceration facilities, the Office of Juvenile Justice proposes to fill the gap by reducing community-based supervision and some rehabilitation programs.

Unlike adult prisons, which are primarily custodial, juvenile facilities are supposed to be more treatment- and therapy-based, giving minors a better chance to be rehabilitated.

Prior to this legislation, it had been 108 years since Louisiana reviewed the age at which children could be criminally prosecuted as adults.

Voting to delay the start of “Raise the Age” (4): Sens. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville; Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City; Danny Martiny, R-Metairie; John Milkovich, D-Shreveport.

Voting against SB248 (2): Vice Chairman Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria; and Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.