Louisiana ‘Strayed’ from Commitment to Juvenile Justice Reform, Report Contends

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Nearly a decade after Louisiana committed to sweeping changes to the state’s struggling juvenile justice system, some advocates contend the governor and leaders in the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice are “backsliding” on their commitments to reform.

Louisiana juvenile justiceLouisiana juvenile justiceAdvocates gathered on the steps of the state Capitol last week to unveil a report, “What’s Really Up Doc?: A Call for Reform of the Office of Juvenile Justice.” The 43-page document calls for the state’s recommitment to adopting a more therapeutic approach to juvenile justice based on the Missouri model as well as commitments to increase funding for community-based programs and replace some of OJJ’s top brass, among other goals.

“In 2003, the state of Louisiana recognized that juvenile justice reform produced better outcomes for its citizens, youth and families, and made a commitment to this path,” the report said. “A decade later, the state has unfortunately strayed from this commitment, with facility and OJJ practices that are contradictory to the goals of reform.”

The state adopted reform legislation in 2003, also known as Act 1225, on the heels of highly publicized violence within youth detention facilities and litigation with the Department of Justice that found conditions of confinement for some youth in the system unconstitutional. Modeled after Missouri’s system that places an emphasis on rehabilitation and community-based programs rather than detention for troubled youth, Louisiana’s program was dubbed LAMOD – or the Louisiana Model.

Since then, the number of juveniles in detention has been reduced by more than half, largely due to the diversion of non-violent offenders to community-based programs and increased funding for those programs. Yet, like most states, budget constraints in recent years have left a shortfall of funding for the OJJ.

Under the governor’s proposed budget, the department faces a $24.3 million reduction in funding for the next fiscal year, bringing its annual budget to just under $119 million to run a system serving about 5,000 kids annually.

In March, the OJJ’s plan to do away with a $4.3 million contract that provides community-based treatment and education for teen offenders came under the scrutiny of the state’s Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission (JJIC). The program, run by Florida-based non-profit AMIkids, is the only one in the state offering so-called day treatment programs that allow juveniles to live at home while attending programs during the day.

Deputy Secretary Mary Livers, who runs the OJJ, told New Orleans’ Times-Picayune in March that the agency no longer needed the program that boasts an 85 percent success rate for the roughly 900 kids it serves each year.

“I think Dr. Livers is well qualified and a good person who is doing the best she can in a tough budget situation,” said Frank Neuner, attorney and JJIC member who helps oversee the OJJ’s transition from a detention model to a more rehabilitative, community-based one.

The advocacy groups that prepared the report – the Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) – raised specific concerns about Livers’ performance while heading the department, citing her “minimal experience in juvenile rehabilitation.”

Any Most* stakeholder[s] in Louisiana will tell you that Dr. Livers needs to be fired for true reform to take place,” said Shaena Johnson, JJPL youth advocate. “You can’t implement reform without having reform-minded people to implement it.”

Among their top concerns, the report said Livers’ management style, along with her appointment of inexperienced personnel to top leadership positions specifically to manage the state’s three secure-care facilities for boys, has contributed to an increase of violence and unsafe conditions within the detention facilities.

“The biggest issue I think we’ve had is the staffing issue,” Neuner said. “What we need to do is up the qualifications and requirements to be a staff person in OJJ facilities, so we have people that that’s their vocation, to help youth.”

Unlike Missouri, Neuner said the majority of employees working in OJJ facilities hold a high school diploma or GED, and haven’t undergone specialized training in dealing with youth. He said it was “pennywise and tom-foolish” not to invest in adequate staffing.

“Each youth that we lose to life imprisonment costs the state over a million dollars in future incarceration costs,” he said. “So if we can save one person by spending a little more now on rehabilitation, we save money in the long run.”

According the report, the facility directors appointed by Livers “seem more like placeholders than long-term leaders” and contribute to both unsafe conditions and high turnover among staff.

“The high turnover rate for the director position in each of the secure-care facilities for boys is of significant concern, and can be potentially attributed to Dr. Livers’ inability to appoint directors that understand and can implement the therapeutic and rehabilitation model that LAMOD and the Missouri Model envision [sic],” the report continued, calling for Gov. Bobby Jindal to remove Livers’ from the position.

When the OJJ was established as a separate entity from the Department of Corrections in 2008, Gov. Jindal tapped Livers to head the new office.

“So it’s inherently his fault,” said Johnson, who co-authored the report. “She was basically appointed because she was in the right place at the right time.”

Livers joined the OJJ in 2007, then called the Office of Youth Development, as the Deputy Assistant Secretary and later moved up to Chief of Operations before taking the helm as Deputy Secretary in 2008.

Responses from the Governor’s Office and the OJJ were not available at the time of publication.

Photo via http://jjpl.org

*A quote in this article has been edited for increased clarity.