Terrebonne detention stats show most are non-violent
An evaluation of how Terrebonne Parish has dealt with youngsters accused of crimes or whose behavior appears to require official intervention, completed by experts who have brought positive change to other parishes, gives a mixed review to current juvenile justice practices and procedures.
The report, released in July, also provides a series of constructive recommendations that officials can use as a roadmap for reform, if participants at all levels of the juvenile justice system can agree on basic ideas, including when and why youngsters are placed in juvenile detention.
Terrebonne District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. is confident that his staff can steer the parish in a positive direction, now that his office has developed a Juvenile Services Division. A Single Point Assessment Resource Center, initially developed by a volunteer board under the aegis of parish government, has been transferred to Waitz for operation.
But there have already been disagreements over how that component of the system should work. Child advocates say the current practice of placing non-violent offenders who have warrants or have violated juvenile probation into detention eliminates opportunities to divert them from the system.
DESIRE TO HELP
How the SPARC will fit into the overall game plan is still under study.
Staff members from the District Attorney’s office and Houma City Court plan to visit centers that appear to be working in Jefferson and Calcasieu parishes.
“Our purpose is to help children in this parish,” Waitz said, responding to concerns among child advocates that the initiative could end up long on fees and costs. “I want this program to assist people at no cost, to see that the people we are helping we are helping at no cost.”
The parish government is providing $250,000 per year to Waitz for operating the SPARC program. An overall juvenile justice budget for the District Attorney’s Office has not yet been determined.
Assistant District Attorney Bernadette Pickett, who pioneered work with child victims of crimes at Waitz’s Child Advocacy Center, is among staffers expected to take a leading role in development of new initiatives.
A focus on better filtering of detention admissions would appear to mesh with some critical physical changes. The juvenile detention center currently in use, next to the Terrebonne Parish jail in Ashland, is to be converted for housing of adult female jail inmates. The juvenile operation will move to a new 32-bed center, smaller than the one now in use. The $10.3 million project is being paid for with federal block grant dollars. Instead of being next door to a jail, the center will share a campus with a new animal shelter and emergency operations center on La. Highway 24 in Gray.
The roadmap that Waitz and his staff may use – in whole or in part – was provided by the Louisiana Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a multi-parish task reform force, with funding by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“JDAI is the foundation’s flagship reform effort that tries to help transform systems so that they can safely reduce reliance on secure detention by having a greater array of options,” said Bart Lubow, a nationally recognized juvenile justice consultant director of the foundation’s juvenile justice strategic group, who is on the panel that made recommendations for Terrebonne.
Begun two decades ago as a pilot project to reduce reliance on local confinement of court-involved youth, the JDAI change model is now operating in nearly 300 counties nationwide.
Dr. John Ryals and Roy Juncker of the Jefferson Parish Department of Juvenile Services as well as Tony Celestine and Jeff Vander of the Calcasieu Department of Juvenile Services are members of the seven-member panel that conducted interviews and visited sites like Houma City Court.
A component of the evaluation was the observation that “Terrebonne does not have a formally agreed upon purpose for detention.”
Various people playing important roles in the lives of juvenile offenders, the report says, expressed varying reasons for the use of detention. They include public safety, deterrence, punishment, drug rehabilitation, behavior modification, school discipline, supervision, and holding of youngsters in severe need of services until they are placed.
“As a result we saw a very high level of youth admitted into detention in Terrebonne on non-violent offenses,” states the report, authored by Louisiana JAIDA Coordinator Tyler Downing. “Youth who were neither threats to public safety or at risk for not attending court hearings.”
Statistics examined by The Times, provided by the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government, which operate the detention center, confirm the suggestions delivered in the report.
Throughout 2013 and 2014, there were 722 admissions to detention overall. A little over 10 percent of those were for violent offenses. The non-violent offenses included contempt of court, violation of probation and property crimes such as theft and simple burglary. Drug offenses were also in the non-violent category, and represented 10 percent of those.
The data are consistent with similar analysis done by the task force.
But keeping relevant data will likely be a challenge in Terrebonne, which has no central clearing house for juvenile records and statistics.
“Law enforcement, judiciary, detention and the school system all have varying degrees of data capacity,” the report says, noting that “data systems do not interface at the moment, which makes sharing data inconvenient and irregular.”
During its study of Terrebonne, the committee was unable to receive any data other than detention admissions.
The average length of stay for children in detention was determined to be 9.7 days in 2014 for violent as well as non-violent offenders. While it would technically be possible for individual youth to bond out sooner, the report notes, mandatory drug testing even for those whose charges are not drug related add to release delays.COMMUNITY RISKS
Over-rides of some protocols now in place in Terrebonne – including referral to the SPARC program instead of an immediate ride to detention – make for a system, the report says where more youth are likely to be detained who are not appropriate candidates for detention.
“Based on data provided for 2014, more than 80 percent of detained youth presented as non-violent low-level offenses,” the report says, indicating a need for pre-processing screening to maximize use of non-detention alternatives.
A discussion that should be had in Terrebonne, the report says, is “only detaining youth that are risks to the community or to abscond from court hearings.”
While mental health evaluations are provided, the report says delays in administering them also result in overly long detention stays that may not be appropriate.
Despite the many challenges contained in the report – which in some cases are well known locally – Terrebonne officials say they are confident that positive change is afoot.
“Now that it is going to be under the umbrella of the District Attorney’s office I suspect we are going to begin to move forward and come up with things that will help the situation work better in the long run,” Judge Hagen said. •