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Editorial: Juvenile justice reform threatened by state budget cuts

Last Modified: Wednesday, February 06, 2013 7:30 PM

Louisiana’s juvenile justice system has made significant strides over the past 20 years.

Once considered among of the worst in the nation, the state’s juvenile justice system has garnered national acclaim in the reforms that have been adopted. Those changes have included more focus on prevention and early intervention, programs to divert juveniles from the criminal justice system and school retention programs and truancy centers.

The state has gone from incarcerating more than 1,800 juveniles in 2000 to under 500 in 2011.

Many who work in Louisiana’s juvenile justice system say there’s room for improvement, but additional reforms may be threatened by budget cuts.

“We should never forget how vulnerable this progress is,” said Beauregard Parish District Attorney David Burton, a member of the Louisiana Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission.

The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice has experienced a $61 million, or 33 percent, budget cut over the past four years.

Debra DePrato, director of the Institute for Public Health and Justice at the LSU Health Sciences Center, said one area that still needs an overhaul is how local court jurisdictions handle juveniles who have not committed a crime, but whose behavior, such as chronic truancy, cannot go unchecked.

She said that too often these juveniles are placed in programs with other youngsters who have committed much more serious crimes.

“You are mixing low-risk kids with high-risk kids,” DePrato said. “The low-risk kids learn a lot of things you don’t want them to learn.”

According to the “Sustaining Juvenile Justice System Reform” report, the state also incarcerates a higher percentage of juveniles with mental health issues than the national average. The study said nearly three out of four juveniles held in the state’s detention and secure-care facilities had some kind of diagnosable mental health issue. More than a third of those juveniles had what was considered a severe mental disorder.

DePrato said many of these juveniles are purposely sent through the court system, hoping it will deal with problem.

Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission member Frank Neuner said investing money on the front end of the system will save the state money in the long run.

Juvenile Justice advocates have valid points. They are to be commended not only for the impressive turnaround in the state’s juvenile justice system, but also for their quest to make it even better.

In this climate of budget cuts, and with more looming on the horizon, they are but one of dozens of groups that are trying to make their case for why their programs should be spared more trimming.

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This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Ken Stickney, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

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