Juvenile Justice Reform: Fixing kid court

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Gov. Bobby Jindal is throwing his weight behind legislation aimed at change in Louisiana’s juvenile justice system.

Local professionals who work daily with young people in trouble – or on the cusp of trouble – say the proposals have merit. But they also have concerns about how the proposals will affect programs they say are already working, although in need of continued or additional money to yield the best results.

“With these reforms, we can help at-risk youth on the front-end so that they can avoid a future of incarceration and instead become productive members of society,” a statement released by Jindal last week reads. “Providing our children with community-based support before they fall through the cracks will go a long way toward strengthening our communities and keeping our kids out of trouble.”

In Terrebonne Parish, officials say a number of local programs do just that – particularly by diverting youngsters so that they can avoid formal induction into the juvenile justice system – but that resources from the state, which could help them do a better job aren’t always forthcoming.

“I support 90 percent of it,” said Brenda Johnson of Houma City Court, where most teens and pre-teens are screened for problems that sometimes require assistance from mental health programs. “I understand what he wants to do, but before the Legislature does any kind of knee jerk, I hope they will talk to people who actually work in those programs. People like me need to be made a part of this legislation, we need to be part of whatever is going to take place. I am not seeing where they are talking to juvenile judges. These are people who work directly in the system here. They know these kids’ faces, their names, their mama and who their brother or sister is. I know what they did when they were 12 years old and I know what they are doing when they are 15 years old.”

Lafourche Parish also has a local system that involves close monitoring of children at risk by the District Attorney’s office and other entities.

A key portion of Jindal’s announced focus involves changes in the longstanding Families in Needs of Services (FINS) program. Its goal is to find solutions for youngsters who exhibit behavioral problems before they end up being formally adjudicated into juvenile or probation or, in more extreme cases, placement away from their families, often in other communities.

Sen. Greg Tarver D-Shreveport, will author a bill specifically dealing with the FINS program statewide.

Currently there are two variations of FINS, formal and informal. Under the informal FINS practice, a young person at risk will be voluntarily entered into a program that provides networking with mental health services or other forms of counseling and assistance, without being formally charged with a crime.

The formal FINS setting involves a filing of a petition by a district attorney or other official, which can result in a youngster being placed in a residence away from home, or left with their family on formal probation.

The program, according to Jindal, has been misused over the past few years and resulted in higher incarceration rates for youngsters, rather than less juvenile crime.

State hearings held in 2011 and last year resulted in a finding that there were no clear state guidelines concerning when a child should be referred to FINS formally or informally.

The formal program, according to background material supplied by Jindal’s office, resulted in an over-use of probation and incarceration for youngsters who could have been dealt with informally, potentially with better results.

Jindal noted that under the current practice in some parts of Louisiana, a 10-year-old with the developmental level of a kindergartener, could be referred to informal FINS for talking back to his parents.

“He could only spend three weeks in the informal FINS system before being referred to formal FINS and ultimately locked up in in jail,” the statement from the Governor’s office states.

“A 6-year-old who does not make it to school for several days can be referred to informal FINS by his school,” the statement reads. “If the child does not participate in the services FINS recommends or continues to miss school, that child can be referred to formal FINS and ultimately placed in a residential facility or on probation.”

Currently, a child from an abusive of broken home can be referred into FINS as a runaway, even though never charged with a delinquent offense.

“She can be found in contempt by FINS for curfew violations and sentenced to 6 months in jail,” the statement reads.

“The bottom line is many of the youth referred to FINS are from broken and abusive homes, have not committed a crime, and need help – not jail time,” Jindal said. “This needs to change – we need to work with these youth on the front-end to get them the treatment they need to grow up and lead productive, healthy lives. These reforms would prohibit children with ‘non-criminal’ or non-delinquent offenses from being referred to formal FINS and potentially locked up in detention or a residential facility.”

Jindal’s legislation would divide the formal and informal FINS programs into two separate categories, clarifying that informal FINS is voluntary.

There would be greater flexibility for district attorneys, allowing them to more easily use FINS as a diversion program. The state would reserve the ability to take violent offenders, including those under the age of 10, into custody.

“Juvenile incarceration is a direct indication of the likelihood of adult incarceration,” Jindal said. “Research has shown that juveniles who are incarcerated are three times more likely to enter adult prison later in life compared to those who are were not committed to a facility earlier in life. Involvement in the juvenile justice system reduces a youth’s likelihood of completing high school, which in turn is associated with obtaining a lower paying job and an increased likelihood of participating in criminal activity.”

Sen. Rick Ward, D-Port Allen, will craft legislation aimed at case management systems that Jindal maintains will allow for proactive treatment of youngsters on juvenile probation.

According to Jindal, the legislation will streamline current overlaps and better coordinate interaction between the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, the Office of Juvenile Justice, the Louisiana Supreme Court and the Department of Education. Integration with local school boards would also likely be a result.

“Significant national research on the unique coordination needs of ‘crossover youth,’ or those youth who participate in more than one system, show that a single, targeted, regionalized management system can better track youth from system to system, target services to those youth, and lower recidivism and potential adult incarceration,” Jindal’s proposal states.

Local officials who work with kids in trouble, however, say that potential problems with Louisiana’s Medicaid system can conceivably lessen options available, since several of the programs they rely on for diverting children out of the system are Medicaid based.

The Options for Youth program in Terrebonne, for example, will provide drug treatment for youngsters who test positive for drug use. But the program is designed to be paid for through Medicaid. Even now, officials say, before expected short-funding of Medicaid takes effect, youngsters are being turned away. Bridging those gaps, Brenda Johnson and other local professionals say, is essential to effective change.

In the case of a youngster who needs evaluation by the local program, who does not qualify under Medicaid but whose parents work at jobs where private insurance is not available, the gap can be daunting, Johnson and other local officials said.

Programs to fill those gaps exist, but are only available in some parishes. Terrebonne is not one of them.

“Dad works for Walmart, mom works at the local motel cleaning, I cannot get that kid evaluated for substance abuse,” Johnson said. “I cannot put him into treatment because they are all Medicaid driven. I have probably had to turn away seven or eight kids in the past year.”

Juvenile Detention Center