BATON ROUGE, La. — The House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice Wednesday advanced two bills without objection that relate to juvenile justice.
Senate Bill 323, sponsored by Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, would require the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections to adopt rules that would sort juvenile offenders into low, medium and high-risk categories based on medical, educational and psychological assessments.
The tiered system could then be used to segregate high-risk juveniles as a safety precaution.
The bill comes after a series of escapes and violent actions at the state’s juvenile facilities. The facilities are in Bridge City, Monroe, Columbia, Bunkie and St. Martinville.
Cloud said that under current policies, a 20-year-old violent offender could be sleeping in the same dormitory as a 14-year-old convicted of property crimes.
“As a parent, that should activate us and should greatly concern us," Cloud said.
William Sommers, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice, joined Cloud in presenting the bill to the committee.
Sommers gave a presentation about the tiered system.
"This is the future of juvenile justice," Sommers said. "I believe that this tiered system gives us the ability to classify kids in a safe manner."
Michelle Piazza, a correctional employee, spoke in favor of the bill. Piazza said that she was assaulted by a juvenile offender last May and sustained injuries for which she is still being treated.
"We are not saying to lock these kids up, lock them in a cell and that's the end of it,” Piazza said. “The tier system is an amazing system.”
Cloud argued that her tier system could have prevented what happened to Piazza, as the juvenile that assaulted her had attacked another guard a few months earlier. That could have prompted placing him in a higher-risk category.
Ronald Marshall, who was formerly incarcerated in Louisiana, spoke against the bill, arguing that guards incentivize youth offenders to fight.
“That's why you have this violence against correction officers, because correction officers are paying kids to fight,” Marshall said.
Senate Bill 335, sponsored by Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, would increase the penalties for a juvenile offender who assaults an employee at a correctional facility and enhance penalties for offenses committed during an escape attempt.
While the bill originally applied to both misdemeanors and felonies committed in these contexts, it was amended in committee to apply just to felonies.
Rep. Marcus Bryant, D-New Iberia, raised concerns that guards could use their authority to press charges against juveniles they do not like, causing them to serve more time.
“It kind of sounds like you're now about to start charging kids as adults,” Bryant said. “Do you have caps on the length of incarceration that a judge could give that child if they’re charged with a crime in that facility? Because you have to believe that guards can play a very ugly trick on the child they don’t like on the eve of their release.”
Jackson pointed out that Louisiana law already allows minors to be charged as adults and argued that guards already do that.
Meghan Garvey, a lawyer representing the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, spoke against the bill, citing the need for improvements by the Office of Juvenile Justice.
“I would just like to remind everybody that under the law, the state of Louisiana and OJJ is actually legally the parents of these children,” Garvey said. “The law says that these children are meant to be cared for, as if they were in their family's home. I would also point out that if an individual took care of their own children in the manner that OJJ is currently taking care of children, the individual would likely lose their children.”