NEW ORLEANS — The troubled Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice sent a letter to judges across the state notifying them its teen prisons are full and it doesn’t have the space to house new inmates.
Wednesday, Orleans Juvenile Court judges appeared before the city council budget committee. Chief Judge Ranord Darensburg warned that some arrested young people may have to be released, even if judges feel they present a danger to the community.
He also said the city’s own juvenile lockup may soon be forced to turn away arrestees.
“What’s going to happen is our Juvenile Justice Intervention Center that has a capacity of 56 youth will be over capacity, thus leading them to be in violation and to be cited for having too many youth in the facility,” Darensburg said. “What we’ll get to, is absolutely nowhere for youth to go.”
Under questioning from budget chair Councilman Joe Giarrusso, the judges expressed frustration with a situation they admit potentially threatens public safety.
“Any child we put into detention will remain in the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center until OJJ picks them up,” Darensburg said. “What that letter indicates is that they’re not going to pick them up.”
Judge Candice Bates Anderson said the lack of bed space for juvenile offenders presents a risk to the community.
“It’s sending a message, number one, to the children that may commit certain delinquent acts that there’s no place to send them,” Judge Bates said. “I can tell you for the citizens and for the community and for the children and for everybody involved it is very problematic.”
According to the OJJ letter, a massive riot at a secure care youth prison near Monroe destroyed a dormitory for dozens of juvenile offenders which is partly to blame for the shortage of beds. Sen. Pat Connick, R-Marrero is calling on lawmakers and the governor's office to fix the problem as soon as possible.
“The increase in juvenile crime is well known,” Connick said. “We’ve got to fund the front-end programs that will keep juveniles out of jail and make sure we have jails that are safe and secure for the juveniles and for the staff.”
Connick also says OJJ’s jail shortage will likely delay the eventual closure of the troubled Bridge City Center for Youth on the Westbank of Jefferson Parish.
Recently, ten violent offenders housed at Bridge City were transferred to the youth prison in Monroe. This came after a series of inmate escapes there.
“I do not see violent offenders going back into Bridge City because they can’t hold them,” Connick said.
Back at the city council meeting, judges asked the budget committee for emergency funding to help pay for programs that provide alternatives to youth incarceration.
“One of the emergency fixes the council could look at, is the possibility of immediate funding for an electronic monitoring system,” Bates Anderson said.
New Orleans phased out its electronic monitoring program for juvenile arrestees in 2018. It was plagued with problems, including lack of funding and inconsistent monitoring.