No room in the inn (for juvenile offenders)

By Bonnie Culverhouse

After Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law a bill to raise the age of juveniles to 17, City Judge Sherb Sentell’s courtroom suddenly became more crowded. Unfortunately, cells for those juveniles awaiting adjudication did not expand to meet that need.

Minden Police Chief Steve Cropper confirmed there are only two beds available at Ware Youth Center in Coushatta for Webster Parish juveniles, and both of those beds are occupied by juveniles that have committed serious felonies.

“Re-releasing these juveniles back to their parents is what we’ve been doing,” Cropper said. “We had several juveniles that tried to break in to a local pawn shop a while back. We arrested them and sent them straight back to the house because we have no place to put them.

“Unless they commit a violent crime, it’s hard to get them a bed anywhere,” he added.

Cropper said he is of the opinion the state made a mistake by raising the age to 17.

“We have a backlog, and that’s why,” he said. “You get 16- or 17-year-old kids who are staying home and having riots on their streets.”

Cropper said it is his hope legislators will take a second look at the law.

“I hope they realize how much of a backlog they’ve caused by raising the age,” he said.

The Office of Juvenile Justice is trying to help local entities deal with the problem.

William A. (Bill) Sommers, OJJ deputy secretary, talked with representatives from Webster and Bossier parishes recently on ways his office is working to stop juvenile crime before it happens.

Sommers said he has issues with the “Raise the Age” law that places 17-year-olds in youth lockup.

“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 (Ware) and 1 in residential (jail).

Webster Parish Sheriff Jason Parker said juveniles awaiting adjudication aren’t held at Bayou Dorcheat Correctional Center, nor are they placed in the Webster Parish Courthouse with female offenders.

“Once the juveniles are adjudicated, what happens next falls to the Department of Corrections,” Parker said. 

They would then go to a state facility.

“There were a lot of 17-year-olds prior to that law that were being arrested and treated as an adult,” he said. “Now those 17-year-olds are going through the juvenile process, and it’s a whole lot more difficult, not only on the law enforcement side.

“Our hands are tied on where to put them … where to house them,” said the sheriff. “If it’s not a major felony offense, we arrest them, write them a summons and release them to their parents.”

Springhill City Judge Stuart McMahen recently dealt with a group of juveniles from the northern part of the parish who were fighting and had firearms.

“We had to let them go,” Parker said. “Judge McMahen is facing this, too.”

To even hold them is difficult and, like the chief, the sheriff would like to see the law revisited. He said he knows the number of juveniles his deputies have arrested since the law went into effect has grown.

“They have to be out of sight, away from sound (during incarceration),” Parker said. “That law has made it a lot more difficult to deal with the juveniles.”

A compromise would even be welcome.

“If we could come up with something where we could hold them 24 hours or 72 hours, that would help,” he said. “We would have to come up with a secure place at BDCC, though, to hold them.”