The Louisiana State Senate will take up this week a budget bill that would take the state out of juvenile justice-related community services, at a time when local governments are unlikely to fill such a gap.
House Bill 1, which would eliminate about $11.2 million from the Office of Juvenile Justice’s (OJJ) budget designated for contracts for community-based services for juveniles, passed the Louisiana House and now rests with the Senate Finance Committee.
Some of those services are for juvenile offenders coming home from state-controlled juvenile prisons; others are alternatives to incarceration in the first place.
The bill would mean that 472 current juvenile inmates would “would eventually return to their communities without any re-entry and community support services,” according to a letter circulated today by two state advocacy groups.
“Additionally, due to the proposed cuts, all community-based support services for the 3,599 youth currently under OJJ supervision for probation and parole would be cut,” said the letter from Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) and Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC).
Elimination of re-entry and community sentencing programs could jeopardize strides the state has made with its management of residential care. Without reintegration services, juveniles returning from secure care “will come home with five bucks and nothing,” said Melissa Sawyer, founder of the New Orleans-based Youth Empowerment Project.
“It goes without saying, that the elimination of these educational, job-training, and other support services greatly increases the risk that these youth will re-offend,” said the letter from FFLIC and JJPL, referring to the youths under OJJ supervision in the community.
HB 1 came in $268 million under the request of Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), and the Senate is expected to add more spending to the package.
House member Patrick Williams (D), who sits on the of the state’s Juvenile Justice Initiative, said it was long expected that the House would approve a bill that erased the juvenile justice contracts, along with scores of other contracts in the 2011 budget.
Williams said he expects the Senate to add funding for community programs in through amendments. But he voted against HB1 because “you shouldn’t send a bill” to the senate when you “have no idea what will happen.”
The jeopardy faced by the community contracts appropriation has advocates concerned about the future of juvenile justice reform in Louisiana, which had one of the highest juvenile incarceration rates in the country.
HB1 would essentially end the community contracting aspect of OJJ’s operation, confining the state to facilities, probation and parole. Two years ago, the legislature approved an $11 million cut to community-based contracts, said Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.
Youth Advocates Program (YAP), a Harrisburg, Pa.-based organization that provides community-based services in 18 states, has two contracts for a total of $400,000 to provide juvenile reintegration and intensive mentoring services for juveniles in 13 parishes. [Parishes are the Louisiana equivalent of counties].
If the state budget excludes community contracts, YAP’s programs will halt at the beginning of July, said Talvin Paul, director of Louisiana programs for YAP.
“It’s horrible for kids and families,” said YAP Southwest President Gary Ivory. “It costs $30 to $40 bucks per day for in-home, and secure care costs $200 per day. And the driver is, ‘We just don’t want to pay for anything.’”
Other state contractors include multi-state providers such as Boys Town and Associated Marine Institute (AMIKids), and local providers such as the New Orleans-based Youth Empowerment Project, and the Baton Rouge Harmony Center.
The state’s secure juvenile facilities were subject to a federal lawsuit in 1998 that alleged unconstitutional conditions because “the state failed to provide reasonably safe conditions, adequate educational, medical, dental, mental health, and rehabilitative services,” according to the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice website.
The state entered into a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to address the problems. Louisiana was released from federal oversight in 2006; a year after the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation selected it as a pilot state for juvenile justice reform.
The same year Louisiana joined MacArthur’s Models for Change Initiative, it published a five-year strategic plan that included increased attention to community involvement and partnership.
In 1999, the state incarcerated juveniles at a rate of 553 per 100,000, according to Kids Count, 56 percent higher than the national rate of 356. In 2006, Louisiana’s rate was 279, below the national rate of 295.
-John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change