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.

Oscar Wilde learned a thing or two about corrections as an inmate of Reading jail. He said Queen Victoria treated her prisoners so badly, she didn't deserve to have any.

That was a century ago. In theory, society has learned that jails can be institutions of advanced criminal learning for the young. A better and much more cost-effective approach is to separate juvenile justice arrangements and steer the young away from a life of crime.

But one wonders if a modern-day Wilde observing Louisiana's juvenile justice system would say we're doing so badly at it that we don't deserve to see kids go straight.

The upside of a new audit of juvie: Fewer teens are behind bars.

The downside: They are in fights more often, and other indicators of lack of progress are rising.

The report from the Legislative Auditor's Office is intended to be a kind of baseline assessment for a new committee that is looking into operating standards for juvenile prisons. A separate audit will focus on rehabilitation and treatment programs in those facilities.

In both cases, we suspect, there's a lot of fault to find.

Turnover in demanding jobs like those in juvenile prisons — let us not mince words about that — is so great that asking for smooth operations is almost hopeless. Auditors said the state has already run afoul of federal laws intended to protect youths serving time in what are called secure-care facilities.

Funding remains so scarce that the agency has been unable to open a brand-new, 72-bed youth prison that is sitting vacant in Avoyelles Parish. The most recent proposed budget cut — $11 million — would cause the state Office of Juvenile Justice to shutter five regional offices, eliminate 114 positions and "pretty much eliminate our ability to provide probation services," director James Bueche said.

"Legally, we're bound to offer probation services, but we're not going to have the staff to do it," he added. "I'm not sure what state the agency is going to be in."

The latest proposed cuts come as the state's juvenile system prepares to absorb an influx of 17-year-old offenders who will no longer be tried as adults — the result of the 2016 "raise the age" law.

That's a good law, we think, but it is vital that the state — and ultimately that means the taxpayer — fund operations that work, and not just generate headlines for bad behavior by the youthful inmates.

OJJ agreed with the audit's findings and has made changes to make better use of limited resources, Bueche said, including new data collection methods and allowing more guards to work overtime at understaffed facilities.

This is nibbling around the edges. The reality is that the money taxpayers invest in today's facilities is not enough. In a private business, pay would go up to fill vacancies; consultants would be brought in to make processes more effective; more money would be spent on technology, instead of constant make-do and paperwork in state institutions.

Few things in life are tougher than turning around a juvenile who already has got in trouble, probably multiple times, before being locked up. If we as a state aim to do this work on the cheap, it's not going to succeed, and ultimately the young troublemaker will turn into the adult criminal, getting his advanced degree in burglary or worse in the Department of Corrections.