Louisiana OJJ Head Resigns Following Reports of Issues at Juvenile Jails

Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish is one of several OJJ facilities plagued with violence and escapes. | Photo via Google Earth

On Friday, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that he accepted the resignation of William Sommers, Deputy Secretary for youth Services, and head of Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice. The resignation comes after reports of ongoing problems across the state’s juvenile justice system, including a letter sent last week notifying juvenile court judges that the state’s facilities are completely full.

“Juvenile Justice work is challenging in the best of times, and OJJ’s work was made even harder during the pandemic,” Gov. Edwards said in a statement. “At the same time we were seeing increases in young people entering the juvenile justice system, there were unprecedented challenges in hiring and retaining of staff for juvenile justice agencies across the country. These challenges have contributed to several unfortunate incidents in Louisiana.”

The “unfortunate incidents” that Edwards refers to include the destruction of a 36-bed dorm inside the Swanson Center for Youth, and multiple investigations into facilities across the state, including the Bridge City Center for Youth and the Ware Youth Center. Conditions at the Ware Youth Center garnered national attention after a New York Times investigation revealed a history of abuse, neglect, and suicide attempts at the center.

More recently, the state drew public criticism and federal oversight attention after housing several violent juvenile offenders inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Renovation of a facility formerly used to house death row inmates into a facility suitable for incarcerated children cost OJJ $550,000, not including the staffing costs at the new facility.

“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.”

Edwards insists that the Angola facility is necessary to house more violent incarcerated youth. Even there, two of the seven youths held allegedly assaulted an employee last week. Both young men, who are 18, have been re-arrested and transferred to the local adult jail, where they now face adult criminal charges.

Edwards has named OJJ Assistant Secretary Otha “Curtis” Nelson – who joined the agency just this year after serving as deputy judicial administrator for the Louisiana Supreme Court Division of Children and Families – as interim deputy secretary.

“Curtis has decades of experience helping troubled youth and their families,” Edwards said. “He understands the issues and challenges facing our juvenile system, and I’m confident in his leadership and ability to help us address the problems within OJJ and make improvements.”

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