- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:


June 12

NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune on juvenile detention centers:

Louisiana’s Legislature passed a package of laws 13 years ago that was supposed to transform juvenile justice in our state. But continuing violence at Bridge City Center for Youth is evidence that the reform effort is off track.

Bridge City became a model facility after the Juvenile Justice Act passed in 2003. But conditions eroded during Gov. Bobby Jindal’s eight years in office, when staffing was cut dramatically. Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration inherited the mess at Bridge City when the new governor took office in January.

The youth center’s assistant director told an Orleans Parish juvenile judge in April that the facility is improving, but there is no sign of that.

A female staff member was sexually assaulted by a group of teenage boys May 28 after she was lured to a hallway by one of them, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation. She was groped and the teens tried to remove her pants. Another staff member tried to intervene, but was blocked by one of the teens. It took three calls to get back up, the source told NOLA.com / Times-Picayune reporter Jonathan Bullington.

Two teenagers were arrested five days after the attack and charged with sexual battery, according to records. But the source said five others were involved in the attack. All seven of the teens were awarded a “fun day” with games and television access less than a week after the incident, the source said.

Beth Touchet-Morgan, deputy assistant secretary for the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice, said Bridge City staff did an internal investigation and found probable cause to arrest two of the teens. Punishment for “any other youth involved” would be done through the center’s code of conduct, she said.

It seems the teens were actually rewarded after the attack, though. That makes no sense.

At the court hearing in April, Judge Mark Doherty questioned Bridge City Assistant Director Timothy Maple about eight different fights at the facility that month. A counselor told the judge that teens being held there were kicking down locked doors between units and attacking each other.

Seven or eight teens attacked one young man while he was handcuffed and being escorted to the hospital for X-rays on his hand, which had been injured in previous fights.

Also in April dozens of teenagers broke through locked doors and evaded staff for hours by jumping up on the roof and pulling ladders away from security staff.

Why are the locks so flimsy? And how is the staff so easily overwhelmed?

Mr. Maple downplayed the problems. “Considering the fact that this is a secure care facility, you’re going to have situations that come up,” he said.

“We’re getting better,” he told Judge Doherty. The problems at Bridge City are “mild” in comparison to juvenile detention centers in Maryland and Washington he said.

That is not comforting. Louisiana is supposed to have a top-notch program. The state’s Juvenile Justice Act was based on Missouri’s innovative programs, which emphasize rehabilitation. Louisiana closed two private jails that were troubled and reduced the state’s reliance on incarceration. Young offenders who are locked up are supposed to attend classes and go through group therapy together.

Former staffers at the Bridge City youth center said in 2012 that it was common to have just one staff member in the dorms and that there was a lack of backup. In Missouri, at least two staff members are with every group at all times, which should be safer.

Ms. Touchet-Morgan said the Bridge City staff is working with Missouri Youth Services Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to reforming juvenile detention centers, to “develop and implement a comprehensive plan to address any concerns” found at the youth center.

That is a good step.

As Judge Doherty said in April, the court’s obligation is to make sure the children being sentenced to the facility are safe and able to be rehabilitated.

That hasn’t been the case at Bridge City for several years. In 2011, more than half of the documented fights between incarcerated juveniles at the state’s three youth facilities occurred at Bridge City, according to a report in The Times-Picayune.

In February 2012, a 26-year-old female staffer was trapped in a dorm room for an hour while three juveniles threatened her with rape. The young men had taken her radio and disabled the phone.

And the violence is ongoing, as the fights reported in April and the attack on the employee in May indicate.

“Bridge City for years was the model facility,” Dana Kaplan, the former director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, said in 2012. “In the wake of reform, you really did see different outcomes happening at Bridge City.”

But the state didn’t sustain reforms at its three juvenile detention centers, and Bridge City became the epicenter of problems, she said.

It hasn’t yet gotten back on track. With a new state law to move 17-year-olds from adult jails to juvenile facilities, it is even more urgent for juvenile detention facilities to be safe and to provide the education and therapy essential to the Missouri method.

Gov. Edwards should make that a top priority. If Bridge City was a model facility before, it can be again.




June 14

The Advocate on turning convicts into taxpayers:

Following the lead of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, state government is now agreeing to “ban the box,” a slogan for rules that prevent employers from asking about past criminal history on a job application.

In a display of bipartisan collaboration, Republicans and Democrats applauded as Gov. John Bel Edwards signed House Bill 266 into law.

The idea is to make it easier for former convicts to get a foot in the door for jobs. Obviously, this does not prevent employers from doing criminal background checks for sensitive jobs, or even from asking about former arrests and convictions in job interviews.

As the governor said, society has an interest in getting people who have finished their sentences into gainful employment.

“They can get integrated back into society with a better opportunity to get a job and become productive members of society,” Edwards said before signing the bill into law. “They’ll be taxpayers, if you will, rather than tax consumers because we know that people who cannot be employed typically remain dependent on state services.”

This bill does not apply to private businesses - only to state government. Its passage, though, was applauded by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who said New Orleans has hired 80 people who are going straight.

Those backing the bill include GOP-oriented groups like the Louisiana Family Forum. The group’s President Gene Mills noted church members are volunteers in the prison system.

“They work with men and women who come from all walks of life, and one thing we find in common is that the grace of God can occur anywhere, and it often occurs in our penal system,” Mills said. “You’ve got to believe in second chances, and you’ve got to prepare people for those second chances. It’s not a coincidence, and it can be done very intentionally.”

While we agree that this is a significant step, it’s also important to note its limits: In the real world, an employee can and should be honest with potential employers about past brushes with the law. It’s also vital that an inmate come out of prison able to read and write and compute, and preferably getting job training that can fulfill Edwards’ goals of creating taxpayers.

That is why we note that “ban the box” is only one part of the comprehensive program being pushed by civic leaders in the state from across the political spectrum. The Smart on Crime Coalition applauded passage of eight other bills, proposed by Democrats and Republicans, that will promote re-entry of former inmates into society in positive ways. Some authorize “re-entry courts” or other pilot programs to make the transition back into civilian life easier for inmates.

This is a large task, made larger in Louisiana by our high rates of putting young men in prisons.

They can come out as more accomplished criminals, or they can be ready for employment and the responsibilities of family life. We urge continued attention to education and training for inmates so that the larger aims of the “ban the box” movement can be achieved.




June 12

The Courier of Houma on preparing for the storm season:

Storm season is once again upon us.

We know from years of experience that there’s nothing we can do prevent hurricanes.

We can hope for the best throughout each hurricane season, but that’s about it. We cannot alter the path or strength of any storm.

However, what we can - and must - do is prepare each year for the season.

For people, families and businesses, that means putting a plan in place, communicating it thoroughly and clearly to all the people who will play a part in it and sticking to it in the event of any emergency.

For government agencies, though - particularly for those that are tasked with helping to keep the rest of us safe and helping to ease our way out of and back into the area in case of an evacuation - there is much more to coordinate.

That means that every layer or part of local government must communicate with one another, with each clearly understanding its own responsibilities.

Those same entities must communicate and coordinate with their counterparts in neighboring parishes.

The local government, too, must play a crucial role in relaying important information to the local people who are listening for instructions and updates.

The local government also must communicate clearly and efficiently with state emergency officials who are coordinating efforts across parish lines.

Water doesn’t recognize parish boundaries, so if water is rising in St. Mary Parish, it will likely have an impact in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.

Fortunately, we have competent, effective local officials, many of whom have done this for years.

It is practice that makes perfect, and the more our officials practice communication between one another, the better off we will all be in the event that a storm makes its way toward south Louisiana.

The Terrebonne Parish Council has formed a committee to come up with action plans for hurricanes or strong storms.

Meanwhile, Terrebonne’s law enforcement and government officials are reviewing their hurricane plans to make sure everyone is clear about the responsibilities each has.

We spend half of each year under a real risk of a life-threatening storm targeting south Louisiana.

Preparation is our most potent tool against the death, danger and disruption hurricanes can bring, so it is great to see our public officials embracing their roles and taking actions now that could well mean a huge difference in the event of a storm.

We all, of course, hope for the best each hurricane season. But hoping won’t keep us safe; only preparation can help do that.



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