- Associated Press - Friday, June 10, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Juvenile justice advocates have hailed Louisiana’s lawmakers for agreeing to raise the state’s adult prosecution age, but the switchover won’t happen as soon as Gov. John Bel Edwards signs the bill into law.

Instead, 17-year-old offenders will be phased into the juvenile justice system over several years, completely by 2020.

After a significant planning stage, Louisiana’s criminal justice system will begin transitioning to handle cases for minors charged with nonviolent crimes on July 1, 2018. Offenders who have been charged with more serious or violent crimes, such as rape, armed robbery, aggravated assault or stalking, will join two years later.

The measure won’t apply retroactively, and district attorneys can still charge 17-year-olds as adults for homicide and other serious crimes at any time.

Louisiana is currently one of nine states that treat 17-year-old offenders as adults, and the state Legislature had not evaluated the provision for 108 years. Edwards supports the change as part of his legislative package and is expected to sign the bill into law next week.

The transition effort will begin with a diverse 18-member committee composed of judges, attorneys, parents and youth advocates, among others. The committee is scheduled to meet Oct. 1 and deliver recommendations to the Legislature by Jan. 1.

While pushing for his bill, Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, reminded his colleagues that the extended implementation period allows lawmakers to make future changes if the plan does not rollout as expected.

The flexibility appeared to ease the minds of some lawmakers who expressed concerns after a fiscal analysis of the measure found the transition could cost the state $2.76 million before seeing any long-term savings. The proposal eventually drew bipartisan support as a way to rehabilitate young offenders and reduce Louisiana’s world-leading incarceration and high recidivism rates.

No set number has been placed on what the state may save by making the switch, but the fiscal review found “the state stands to potentially realize significant savings at the 1, 2 and 3-year windows after release from a secure environment.”

The Institute for Public Health and Justice at LSU has estimated the change will reduce youth recidivism and save the state $20 million each year.

Edwards said all nine states that treat 17-year-olds as adults regardless of the charges against them have pending legislation to place minor offenders in “an age-appropriate setting.”

“We are no longer giving up on our young people. Rather, we are giving them a chance to get their lives back on track,” the Democratic governor said.

Studies have found that 17-year-olds are largely charged with minor, nonviolent offenses and have immature impulse control.

The adult system also places the teenagers at a greater risk of physical and sexual assault; often isolates them for long periods of time; deprives them of education; and puts them at an increased risk of suicide, the youth advocates say.

Once signed, the bill will join other provisions sponsored by Morrell that update the juvenile justice system through overhauled educational standards, increased attorney access and fiscal accountability.

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Online:

Senate Bills 324, 301, 302 and 303: www.legis.la.gov

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