With new governor, a debate brews about the future of Louisiana’s juvenile justice system _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Architectural rendering of the Office of Juvenile Justice's Acadiana Center for Youth, a long-awaited secure care juvenile facility near Bunkie. The center will be the first of its kind built under the new therapeutic care model, after more than a decades-worth of juvenile justice reform.

As law enforcement officials, our first and greatest responsibility is to keep the public safe. That’s why we’re highly concerned about the state budget crisis. If legislators do not agree on a solution to the fiscal cliff soon, state agencies face more than $1 billion in cuts. That includes more than $10 million for the Office of Juvenile Justice.

This would spell trouble for our officers and the communities we serve. The entirety of the cuts will come from OJJ’s community-based services, which include supervision and other supports that work to rehabilitate children and keep them from offending again. This means OJJ would end contracts with local organizations that provide necessary resources like mentorship and job training to young people. Probation services would be cut by more than half, severely limiting the state’s ability to supervise children who need extra support in our communities. In some jurisdictions, there will be no probation officers at all.

We know from experience that these services are vital in getting kids on the right track. Without them, children who have been in trouble with the law are much more likely to commit new crimes. Our officers will begin to see the same young people getting in trouble time and again, without any positive interventions to interrupt the cycle. This can range from minor offenses to more severe offenses that threaten public safety. Without alternatives, many of these children will likely end up incarcerated. Even low-risk children, those who could have stayed in the community if probation services were available, will be removed from their families and schools and imprisoned instead.

Juvenile prison is more expensive and less effective at reducing crime than community-based programs, meaning our residents will pay for increased incarceration in more ways than one. This year, in particular, our state legislators should be bolstering instead of jeopardizing OJJ. In July, the Raise the Age Act will take partial effect, making most 17-year-olds part of the juvenile rather than adult justice system. This law received overwhelming, bipartisan support because children who remain in the juvenile justice system are far less likely to commit new crimes. Like other children, 17-year-olds who get in trouble with the law do better when they have the rigorous programming and rehabilitative services that are simply not available in the adult system.

Housing 17-year-olds in adult jail facilities increases potential liability and exposure for sheriffs and jail administrators. Federal law requires jails to keep children under 18 completely separate from adults, which most jails in the state are not set up to do.

Although we work hard to ensure the safety of all young people in our custody, not having 17-year-olds in the facility, to begin with, will keep them safe and make better use of our resources. Now, we need to make sure that OJJ is able to do its job for all children, including 17-year-olds. If they cannot, our officers will be the first to deal with the consequences: a revolving door of young people who endanger the communities we serve and strain law enforcement resources.

Our officers work hard to keep our residents safe. But there is only so much we can do if young people don’t have access to the resources they need to stay on track and off the streets. Without that investment, we jeopardize the safety of our communities now and, as these children become adults, for years to come. If lawmakers are truly committed to public safety and effective law enforcement, they must solve this budget crisis and provide the funding OJJ needs to help our young people succeed.

Bryan Zeringue is the chief of police in Thibodaux. Craig Webre is the sheriff of Lafourche Parish.