Louisiana’s Juvenile Justice System in Crisis

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Louisiana’s Juvenile Justice system has been at the center of local and national media headlines for weeks, and one thing is clear – the system is currently in crisis. Issues from overcrowding to investigations into violence and neglect have made Louisiana’s troubled children the center of attention. Here is a rundown of the issues plaguing Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice:


On November 10, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) sent a letter to Juvenile Court judges notifying them that the system was completely full – there are no secure or non-secure beds available.

“Many of your local detention centers are holding sentenced youth because OJJ cannot safely place them in a facility or program,” the letter said. “OJJ is working diligently to step-down or seek your permission to release youth on parole; however, until OJJ can gain momentum to increase our state’s bed space, we cannot safely accept more youth into the agency’s custody.”

Among the reasons listed for the overcrowding was the destruction of the 36-bed dorm inside the Swanson Center for Youth named the Cypress Unit. The dorm was destroyed during a youth riot. Six offenders – four of whom are over the age of 18 – have been charged with various offenses related to the riot.

The second reason given for overcrowding was the number of youth with “extensive lengths of stays.” “There are a number of youth being maintained in OJJ’s custody who legally could be released to continue their rehabilitation in a less restrictive community based setting,” OJJ notes. “We have a mixture of youth being maintained in OJJ’s custody in non-secure and secure care placements who could be stepped down to a less restrictive setting.”

Children Housed in Adult Prison

The federal government stepped in on Wednesday, saying that incarcerated youth must be removed immediately from Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

“Let me be clear on this point: Children do not belong in adult courts and certainly not in adult prisons and jails,” said Liz Ryan, administrator of the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “We recommend that children be immediately removed from Angola.”

Given the above-noted overcrowding situation, it’s not clear how Louisiana OJJ will respond. As of this writing, seven youth remained incarcerated there. State officials insist that the youth are kept separate from the adult population, and state that the measure is necessary to maintain order at other facilities.

“We offered the Office of Juvenile Justice direct support to help identify more appropriate placement options,” Ryan said. “Moving youth to this maximum-security prison complex constitutes a major reversal for juvenile justice.”

Conditions of Abuse and Neglect

Speaking of maintaining order at other facilities – earlier this month Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered multiple investigations into the Ware Youth Center after a New York Times investigation revealed a long record of abuse, neglect, and suicide at the center. According to the report, there were 64 suicide attempts at the center from 2019-2020, and 91 children have attempted to escape since the beginning of 2019. The report outlines instances of sexual and physical abuse, among other issues at the facility.

But the Ware Youth Center isn’t the only juvenile facility with abuse and neglect problems. In March, The Marshall Project reported on the deplorable conditions at the Acadiana Center for Youth at St. Martinville. In court testimony, a juvenile caseworker reported that a 15-year-old was being kept in rough-the-clock solitary confinement, with no education, and no court-ordered substance abuse counseling. A further investigation revealed guards who responded to youth outbursts with violence – slamming doors on teenagers’ hands, and in one instance kneeing a child and firing pepper spray into his cell, which was not ventilated.

“It’s like you put all of the things that we talk about that are so wrong with our youth justice system and you put it in one facility,” said Carmen Daugherty, policy director at Youth First Initiative.

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