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La. lawmakers debate repeal of law preventing detention of 17-year-olds in adult facilites

The Senate took up Senate Bill 418, which looks to automatically detain 17-year-olds as adults once again, citing a rise in juvenile crime.
Published: May. 9, 2022 at 9:51 PM CDT|Updated: May. 9, 2022 at 10:18 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (KALB) - The Senate took up Senate Bill 418 on Monday, May 9, which looks to automatically detain 17-year-olds as adults once again, citing a rise in juvenile crime.

The proposed bill looks to repeal the Raise the Age law, which passed with bipartisan support and went into full effect in 2020. Opponents of the bill said 17-year-olds are children and housing them with adults, regarding of whether the offense was non-violent or violent, was dangerous.

Sen. Stewart Cathey (R-District 33), SB 418′s author, said a rise in juvenile crime nationwide necessitates the change.

The bill passed through a Senate Judiciary Committee in late April, with support from Attorney General Jeff Landry and Iberville Parish District Attorney Tony Clayton.

Landry suggested the Raise the Age law was hastily thought out, which has led to continued problems within the system it was supposed to help. To that end, Landry said the current law creates exceptions that are more onerous on prosecutors and victims. Instead, they want there to be a rule around charging 17-year-olds as adults, not an exception.

Rapides Parish District Attorney Phillip Terrell noted that the exception does make prosecution more difficult. Though a 2017 bipartisan group of legislators passed the law under Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration, Terrell suggested the measure was premature. Instead, Terrell said the law has overburdened the juvenile justice system.

“We are woefully underfunded and inadequate, not just in Rapides Parish, but across the state,” said Terrell. “[There is] underfunded, understaffed juvenile prosecution, juvenile detention, and we have to do something about that.”

On the other hand, the bill has many fierce opponents, like Rachel Gassert with Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, who said the data does not support the repeal.

According to statistics from Datalytics, Louisiana’s murder rate rose 68% in cities in 2020. Those younger than 18-years-old made up only about 4.4% of those offenders, down from the previous two years, after the Raise the Act law had gone into effect.

They said lawmakers need to look at ways the juvenile justice system can better serve its purpose, instead of repealing what it hoped to preserve.

“I think we should focus on more socio-economic issues as far as juveniles,” said Jermaine Harris, a Rapides Parish defense attorney. “You know, what’s going on in the home, what’s going on in the school, you know, after school programs, youth sports. You know, focus on schools getting trades and vocations for kids who don’t go to college. I think we should put money on those things.”

On both sides, there are those who hold to the 2017 reasoning behind the Raise the Age law, that 17-year-olds are juveniles in every other societal system, and the juvenile justice system should function under that understanding. People from both sides, including Terrell, Harris and Gassert, said the facilities should fundamentally function differently.

“Somebody has to teach that young person how to live, how to get a job, teach them a trade, address their substance abuse problem, address their mental health problem, address all those things so they can be a citizen, so they can be productive, so they won’t re-offend,” said Terrell.

“We shouldn’t excuse and put juveniles in adult facilities because there may be problems with the juvenile facilities,” said Harris. “I don’t think that’s a justifiable excuse. I think that we should do what we can to make sure that that system works and that those facilities work in the juvenile system.”

SB 418 bill was returned to the calendar after a brief debate in the Senate.

Cathey’s bill is just one bill to a larger conversation of juvenile justice reform taking a prominent place in this legislative session.

For instance, Turkey Creek-based Sen. Heather Cloud (R-District 28) has a bill looking to restructure juvenile justice facilities. SB 323 would create a three-tiered system based on several factors, including the threat of the offender, which would range from low to high risk.

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