Skillful, fully-resourced defense attorneys and diligent probation officers are indispensable to providing both justice and public safety in our juvenile courts. But the state’s current budget crisis has brought the threat of devastating cuts to indigent defense and the Office of Juvenile Justice. As judges with decades of experience on the bench, we know that those threatened cuts will hurt children, damage public safety and force any honest person to conclude that Louisiana is on the verge of creating a juvenile injustice system.
The Louisiana Public Defender Board, which oversees public defense across Louisiana, has been threatened with a 61.9 percent budget cut in the fiscal year that starts July 1. Even before any cuts, the state only allocates a mere $200 for every juvenile case, resulting in caseloads that exceed 1,000 per lawyer in some jurisdictions. The board has announced that those catastrophic cuts, if realized, would force the complete elimination of juvenile defense services statewide.
Children can’t defend themselves in court, and without attorneys, delinquency cases will simply not proceed. Some cases will have to be dismissed because, under the law, juvenile cases must be resolved expediently so that consequences follow swiftly on bad behavior. That means youth who are culpable won’t be held accountable, and victims won’t get closure. It also means innocent youth will languish in detention facilities.
Meanwhile, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) — which provides supervision, services and custody for thousands of youth in the juvenile justice system every year — is facing potential budget cuts of 63 percent in the coming year. There is the possibility of some of that money being restored to the budget in the aftermath of the special session – but that is still very much hypothetical, and any significant cuts would be devastating on top of the repeated cuts imposed during Gov. Jindal’s administration. If it suffers cuts on that scale, OJJ has warned that it might have to lay off all of its probation officers! Probation officers supervise youth who have been adjudicated delinquent. Probation officers help ensure accountability and promote success by connecting kids to services in their own homes and communities.
Without probation supervision, more youth will re-offend. Without lawyers, juvenile cases cannot move. The results of both cuts will be more youth sitting unnecessarily in detention centers and in state-run prisons, at astronomical costs in the short run. And think of the long-term costs: Economists estimate the lifetime price of failing to help a high-risk teenager turn his life around at between $3.2 million and $5.8 million per child.
Slashing the Office of Juvenile Justice and public defender budgets will hurt our kids, hurt our safety, and increase the cost of corrections. The cuts may even increase our insurance rates. And, if realized, the cuts will erode the progress we have achieved in juvenile justice in recent years.
Between 2000 and 2006, we reduced the number of Louisiana children in jail by 70 percent. And in the past decade, juvenile arrests across Louisiana dropped by 40 percent. And Louisiana moved toward fairness for all children in 2007, when the Public Defender Act revamped our broken indigent defense system and created statewide structures for supervision and accountability in juvenile defense. But, in the past eight years, much of our state-level progress stalled out — and in some ways we even took a step backward.
Now we have a new administration and new possibilities for juvenile justice reform. We can save public dollars and improve public safety by reinvesting in community-based supports for vulnerable kids; improving education and other services in our juvenile prisons; and joining 41 other states by including most 17-year-olds in our juvenile justice system.
Those reforms are important and possible — but we shouldn’t take one step forward and two steps back. The judiciary, law enforcement, public defenders and the Office of Juvenile Justice are the four key stakeholders in juvenile courts around the state. And a chair will fall if you cut off two of its legs.
Adequately funding the Office of Juvenile Justice and the Louisiana Public Defender Board is essential to our state’s efforts to protect public safety, promote fairness, save taxpayer dollars and help vulnerable children to thrive. As the Legislature convenes for the regular session, it has a lot of hard choices. But fully funding juvenile justice should be a no-brainer.
Judge Jules D. Edwards III (Division B, 15th Judicial District Court in Lafayette) is chair of the Judiciary Commission of Louisiana and immediate past president of the La. District Judges’ Association. Judge Patricia Koch (Division E, 9th Judicial District Court in Alexandria) is president of the Louisiana Judicial College, past president of the La. Conference of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s Champion of Change award.