OUR VIEW: Pay attention to kid justice

Over the past few years a number of changes have come to how Terrebonne Parish administers justice to its youngest offenders. A new $10 million detention center provides a safe environment for those who need to be kept away from the rest of us. City Court Judge Matt Hagen, who handles most juvenile cases, follows many of the traditions laid down over 34 years by the retired Judge Jude Fanguy, an icon of juvenile justice in Terrebonne whose policies were always seen as firm but fair.

Louisiana is in the midst of a reform movement that will see non-violent adults removed from prisons, part of a package developed by legislators last year. There will be changes in juvenile justice as well, including a raising of the age limit. Next year offenders will retain juvenile status until they turn 18, which means a wider net delivering offenders to the Terrebonne Juvenile Justice Complex door.

Now more than ever we must re-examine our policies and procedures to ensure that we are doing what is right and just.

As statistics from juvenile court and from the detention center indicate, the overwhelming number of crimes committed by those 17 and under currently are not the most serious offenses. But we see youngsters booked into detention for cursing, schoolyard fighting and other minor crimes, many of which are signs of behavioral problems that require treatment somewhere other than a kiddy jail.

The current system, as our article indicates, appears stacked in favor of locking up kids in many cases where it is not warranted, where if we did not have a juvenile detention center right at the doorstep of schools other options might be utilized.

Some are. Bernadette Pickett, an assistant district attorney whose Child Advocacy Center has made a difference in many lives in Terrebonne, has been working hard at expanding and developing one program, the Single Point Assessment Resource Center, which allows evaluation of children to determine what resources they need to not re-offend. It is a diversion of sorts, and needs to be more fully utilized.

In particular, the SPARC has been helpful for managing kids who fight at school, or commit other minor crimes. It is still a work in progress, and next week readers will get a closer look at precisely what it does and can do.

This week’s story makes clear that Judge Hagen, a staunch advocate for children, takes his task very seriously and uses his knowledge of Terrebonne’s families and children to make the best of some very difficult situations. He does not want programs or protocols that erode his own discretion concerning who gets detained, why and for how long. We have no doubt that his opposition to scoring tools to determine who gets admitted to detention is born of concern and love for children and for the community at large.

But we urge him to take a broader view. Judge Hagen will not always occupy the City Court bench, and we would rather not trust to providence that whoever one day succeeds him will have the same knowledge, compassion and ability to discern critical facts in an increasingly complex world.

There are already committees that recommend policy regarding children in our parish. But more people need to join in the discussion.

We urge Terrebonne council members and key people in Parish President Gordon Dove’s administration to look closely at the information in this issue and what will run in this newspaper next week, to determine whether the parish’s investment in juvenile justice is paying off in the best possible way.

An investment has been made in a place to lock kids up. We must be equally willing to invest, to seek grants, to get the best assistance possible to see that this place is used only as a last resort. And as the numbers presented this week show, there is reason to believe that is not the current game plan. Some of the best and most well-schooled minds in the juvenile justice world have concluded that detention is over-used not just by our community but many others throughout the nation.

Our children are too important a resource and a treasure. Our people in general are vital to our community, especially our parents, and they need to part of the dialogue too.

We hope that these stories will generate fruitful discussion, and that positive change can result.