Jim Beam column: Protect records of juveniles

Published 6:40 am Wednesday, May 31, 2023

A retired New Orleans juvenile judge had a fitting description for a proposed Louisiana law making criminal records of juveniles in just five parishes open for public view. Judge Ernestine Gray said the bill violates the basic rule that “state law” applies to an entire state.

“Laws should be based on research, not emotion. This bill is way off  base,” Gray said.

The judge voiced her views in a letter to The Advocate. She is talking about House Bill 321 by Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, that would make some court records public for juveniles as young as 13 in Bossier, Caddo, East Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Orleans parishes.

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Villio said her goal is to bring down crime in the parishes with the highest crime rates by offering more transparency. “This bill is about public safety,” Villio said. “The public has a right to know.”

The Senate Judiciary B Committee Tuesday added Bossier and Lafayette parishes to the bill. The bill passed the House 63-36, cleared the Senate committee and is awaiting action in the full Senate.

Among the 63 House votes for the bill were area Reps. Ryan Bourriaque, R-Grand Lake; Dewith Carrier, R-Oakdale; Les Farnum, R-Sulphur; Charles Owen, R-Rosepine; Troy Romero, R-Jennings; Rodney Schamerhorn, R-Hornbeck; and Phillip Tarver, R-Lake Charles.

Rep. Wilford Carter, D-Lake Charles, voted against the bill. Rep. Brett Geymann,  R-Moss Bluff, was listed as absent.

The three original parishes in the bill are majority-Black areas. Some lawmakers are calling it a blatantly racist effort that would expose Black youths to an unnecessary level of scrutiny.

Judge Gray said the chance of being a victim of violent crime in Monroe is 1 in 38; and in Alexandria, it’s 1 in 53. She said both of those cities are more dangerous than two of the selected parishes. In Orleans it’s 1 in 72, and in Baton Rouge it’s 1 in 84.

“The bill makes juvenile records available to the public before a conviction,” Gray said. “… In American law, a person is innocent until proven guilty. Even after an officer makes an arrest on probable cause, the district attorney must determine if a formal charge should be made based on the evidence.”

“Will this bill make anyone safer?” Gray asked. She answered that the research says no it won’t. “It makes us less safe,” she said, “ensuring that young people have less opportunity to become productive and increasing the likelihood they will become criminals.”

Will Sutton, a columnist with The Advocate, said Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, was brave enough to be honest. Ivey said, “This is reckless and irresponsible. I don’t care who the sponsor is.”

Like Judge Gray, Sutton says Rapides and Ouachita parishes aren’t in Villio’s bill and neither is Jefferson, Villio’s home parish. All three have their own juvenile crime problems, he said.

It comes as no surprise that Republican state Attorney General Jeff Landry, a candidate for governor, supports Villio’s bill. Clancy DuBos, politics editor and columnist for Gambit in New Orleans, said Landry’s latest TV ads “suggest he’s running for governor against Black criminals and Black elected leaders in some of Louisiana’s largest cities, not against his six declared opponents.”

Landry implies DA’s are failing to prosecute, judges are failing to act, and police are handcuffed instead of criminals. He says he’s going to hold everyone accountable for violent crime, “and I mean everyone.”

Whether those things are happening can be determined without making juvenile records open for public view. In Louisiana, only the juvenile court can currently authorize release of documents from proceedings before the court.

The Office of Juvenile Justice said, “Under limited circumstances the district attorney and law enforcement may release certain identifying information concerning the youth to the public, provided the youth is at least 14 years old when the act occurred.”

State Sen. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, said Villio’s bill is all about politics and doesn’t do anything about solving the problem of violent crime, according to WDSU News.

Duplessis said, “If we’re really serious about fixing crime, we need to be talking about early literacy. We need to be talking about assisting mothers who are struggling. Living wages, access to affordable housing, understanding mental health and the trauma that many of these young people have experienced at such a young age. That’s how we disrupt crime on the front end. Not by making identities of 13-year-olds public prior to their conviction,” Duplessis said.

Louisiana’s juveniles who are in trouble with the law don’t deserve to have their legal problems available for everyone else to see. A few bad guys shouldn’t justify exposing all juveniles to public ridicule.