By Bonnie Culverhouse
As juvenile crime statistics grow, ways and resources to deal with them seem to shrink. The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) is trying to help.
William A. (Bill) Sommers, OJJ deputy secretary, talked with representatives from Webster and Bossier parishes Wednesday on ways his office is working to stop juvenile crime before it happens.
“We are in the life-changing business,” Sommers told the group of officials from northwest Louisiana law enforcement agencies, school boards, attorneys and others. “That’s never going to change no matter how bad or how good these children are.”
Sommers told the audience the system needs changing, and his intention is to “do a lot of diversion work.”
“Facilities are old; some of the thinking is old,” he said. “Numbers of juveniles in the system are high. How do we get this number down?”
Sommers said there are around 2,500 kids in Louisiana system.
“That includes secure care, residential and kids that are out in the community on probation,” he said. “Most of the kids we have are not locked up. We have a small fraction of youth assigned to OJJ that are detained.”
Sommers said he has issues with the “Raise the Age” law that places 17-year-olds in adult prisons.
“Long term, we’re going to need to get a handle on it because we are seeing more and more that are coming into the system,” he said.
In Webster Parish, there are 31 juveniles on probation, 2 in secure custody and 1 in residential (jail). Bossier Parish numbers show 56 on probation, 15 in secure custody and 6 in residential.
“Every adolescent out there is at risk,” Sommers said.
The answer is programming, he said, “…for the kids that need it.”
“How do we get this number down?” he asked. “If I have 100 kids that come into OJJ, what are we doing programming-wise, what are we doing at home, what are we doing in the community, what are we doing to keep these kids out of custody?
“It’s on us,” Sommers continued. “It takes a village, right?”
At the state level, Sommers said OJJ is trying to build collaborations with local governments and agencies from around Louisiana in order to ensure juveniles carry a diploma, rather than a gun.
“The trend of juvenile crime is going up,” he reiterated. “But staffing is not there. We are assessing policies and data all the time.”
One aspect is called “victim/offender mediation.”
“This is cutting edge stuff,” he said. “The individual who allegedly did the crime sits down with the victim and they talk. The one who did the crime gets to see the effects of what he or she did.”
Sommers also talked of mentoring programs, such as Big Brother, truancy in schools and the Youth Challenge Program.
“I’m a big believer in Youth Challenge,” he said. “It works.”
Interventions in the schools is high on the priority list, and teen court addresses substance abuse.
Webster Parish Superintendent of Schools Johnny Rowland said he has a team of truancy officers to deal with attendance.
“The more they are under our guidance, the better it is for all,” Rowland said.
Programming costs money, however. Sommers said there is grant money available through OJJ.
Since 2018, OJJ has received funding dedicated to providing support for local communities to create and operate alternatives to detention.
Currently the agency is funding approximately 17 diversion programs and 16 alternative-to-detention programs with approximately $4 million designated for these programs.