A Rougher Time
While the system of juvenile justice in Louisiana officially began in 1906, its roots go back further. New Orleans, for example, had long had Recorder's Courts, which had "the jurisdiction of committing magistrates and to enforce all city ordinances, and to try, sentence and punish all persons who violate any legal and valid city ordinance" (Law Library of Louisiana). These courts, dating back to Louisiana's laws as a U.S. territory in 1884, were police courts. They tried and sentenced both juveniles and adults. In fact, juveniles were not treated any different from their older criminal counterparts.
This was long before we had any laws protecting children as one of our most vulnerable populations. We are certainly wiser now, and the Louisiana juvenile justice system has evolved along with our understanding of child development. Rather than just a system of punishment, Louisiana's juvenile justice system seeks to intervene in children's path toward a life of crime and reduce recidivism.
The contemporary juvenile justice system has come a long way from its origins. Experts now recognize more complex causes of crime among younger populations, as well as better ways to intervene in the cycle. Children are treated differently from adults because they are different from adults. Just separating those populations is a move in the right direction. According to a Louisiana Center for Children's Rights publication, "One study showed a 34% increase in felony recidivism when children are prosecuted as adults, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control."
The efforts to reform the juvenile justice system are paying off. In the past twenty years, juvenile crime has steadily decreased. Data from JJGPS shows that, in 1997, 108 juveniles per 100,000 were detained in the state of Louisiana. In 2015, that number fell to 62 per 100,000.
Currently, "nearly 1,000 youth are held in Louisiana's juvenile prisons each year -- at a cost of up to $424 per day." Unfortunately, almost half of those children will return to prison within the next three years.
Since 1997, Louisiana has undertaken reforms to improve the lot of juveniles in the justice system. All for-profit juvenile prisons were driven out of Louisiana in an effort to reduce harsh sentences for children. This action was followed by the "passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003, which triggered a 75% decline in Louisiana's juvenile prison population." The juvenile justice system further "developed detention standards that apply to every facility in the state; and forced a complete rebuilding of New Orleans' juvenile jail."
Work to Be Done
For all of the innovations to the Louisiana juvenile justice system, there is still work to be done. Louisiana -- while leading the way in some areas -- falls behind in others. Louisiana is one of the few states that defines adults as 17 years of age or older. While "they are understood to lack maturity and responsibility, [and] 17 year-olds in Louisiana cannot serve on juries, vote, sign contracts, buy cigarettes or enlist in the military," they are still considered adults in the eyes of the justice system. And given the high recidivism rate of juveniles tried as adults, such a practice is even more problematic.
Further, in relation to other states in the U.S., Louisiana ranks in the middle of the pack. According to a study conducted by the National Juvenile Justice Network and Texas Public Policy Foundation, while some states "set the stage for future reductions [in juvenile crime] by adopting a mix of incarceration-reducing policies," Louisiana still lags behind states such as Missouri, South Dakota and Nebraska.
The juvenile justice system still remains one of the most crucial avenues to break the cycle of crime. Louisiana has taken steps to create alternatives to incarceration, such as home detention and monitoring. Juvenile crime is viewed as a symptom of families in need. Dedicated men and women of the criminal corrections systems work tirelessly to turn these children's lives around.
For those called upon for this noble work, a common path is a criminal justice degree. Fortunately, there are programs for the working student with online options and flexible schedules. In a few short years, these new graduates can become the front line for reducing crime and improving the lives of thousands of Louisiana's children.
Learn more about the LSUA online Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice program.
Sources:Louisiana Center for Children's Rights: History
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