Jim Beam column:Bill needs to die on calendar

Published 7:27 am Sunday, June 5, 2022

Unless it is somehow resurrected, a Louisiana Senate bill that has been returned to the calendar four times in order to be changed deserves to die there. Sen. Stewart Cathey Jr., R-Monroe, is sponsor of Senate Bill 418 that would repeal the state’s 2016 “Raise the Age” law.

The Senate approved Cathey’s bill 29-8 on May 17. It was returned to the calendar three times before that to add amendments to the bill. The House got the bill the next day and it cleared the criminal justice committee with a 6-5 vote. It was scheduled for debate Friday but was returned to the calendar.

Legislators have only today and Monday to wrap up their 2022 regular session. Senate bills were supposed to be debated in the House by 6 p.m. Friday and it would take a two-thirds vote of both chambers to debate Cathey’s legislation.

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How important are Raise the Age laws? Only three states — Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin — don’t have those laws. Louisiana’s law got overwhelming support in 2016. It was approved 33-4 in the Senate and 97-3 in the House.

The state’s Office of Juvenile Justice in 2017 explained the importance of Raise the Age. “Rather than automatically sending 17-year-olds to the adult criminal system, as has been the practice for decades regardless of their offense, the law will now send them to the juvenile justice system where they will have a greater opportunity for rehabilitation,” the office said.

Cathey’s bill would send some of those 17-year-olds back to adult prisons before their trials rather than letting a juvenile justice judge under current law make that decision. Those who testified against the legislation said putting those 17-year-olds in adult prisons exposes them to sexual assaults and suicide.

The Office of Juvenile Justice said a study commissioned in 2015 by the Legislature and conducted by the Institute for Public Health and Justice  and LSU’s Health Science Center determined the following:

  • There is a growing consensus, based on a large body of scientific evidence, that 17-year-olds are developmentally different from adults and should be treated as such. They have a far greater potential for rehabilitation and are particularly influenced – for good or ill – by the environments in which they are placed.
  • The last several years of reform in the Louisiana juvenile justice system have created a capacity to accept, manage, and rehabilitate these youth in a manner that will predictably generate better outcomes than the adult system.

Legislative committees in 2016 heard testimony about that study. It said, “Current behavioral research indicates that, compared to adults, most 17-year-olds are less capable of impulse control; more prone to risky behavior; less able to regulate their emotions; different in their approach to moral reasoning; less able to consider the long-term consequences of their actions; and more susceptible to peer pressure.

Before the 2016 law was enacted, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights said, “Across the country, 18 is usually considered the age of adulthood: 17-year-olds can’t vote, join the military, or even buy a lottery ticket. But if they are arrested in Louisiana, they are automatically prosecuted and incarcerated as adults.”

Raise the Age changed all that, but two public officials want to repeal it. They are responsible for Cathey’s legislation getting as far as it has. State Attorney General Jeff Landry, a lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key guy, made an impassioned plea for it before the Senate Judiciary B Committee.

District Attorney Tony Clayton of the 18th Judicial District (Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge, and Iberville parishes) said 17-year-olds who are committing serious crimes need to be treated as adults.

Teenagers are committing more serious crimes, but current law gives juvenile judges authority to send them to adult prisons if that is where they think they belong.

Rachel Gassert, policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, testified against Cathey’s bill. She said Clayton’s real problem  is that his parishes don’t have an adequate detention center for juveniles and he doesn’t want to have to pay to send them elsewhere.

“He will continue to have this problem,” Gassert said, even if the Raise the Age law is repealed. “That is not a reason to repeal a law that’s going to impact the entire state … They are kids.”

Cathey’s bill has been sitting on the House calendar since May 26. Those who are 17 and who get in trouble with the law will have a better chance of being rehabilitated if it stays there.