Louisiana is making a set of critical reforms to its juvenile justice system, including ensuring that 17-year-olds can be placed in that system instead of adult prisons, delivering an important win for the state’s families.
On June 14, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed four bills designed to improve Louisiana’s approach to juvenile justice by creating a better education system and expanding access to counsel in juvenile prisons, while also allowing more nonviolent youth to serve sentences at home, according to the Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition, which is comprised of 70 grassroots organizations.
Under the Raise the Age Louisiana Act, the state will allow 17-year-olds to be held in juvenile justice facilities. Louisiana had been among only nine states that exclude 17-year-olds from those facilities. When youth are sent there instead of adult prisons, they are up to 34 percent less likely to commit another crime, according to the coalition, which released a report in April in support of the change.
“The runaway success of Raise the Age and other common-sense juvenile justice reforms in this legislative session show that Louisiana is united in wanting a juvenile justice system that is safe, smart, cost-effective, and fair,” Josh Perry, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights and coalition member, said in a statement.
The bill, known as SB 324, enjoyed broad support among grassroots advocates, residents and legislators, with both the state House and Senate passing the act by overwhelming bipartisan majorities.
“We know that at 17 a young person’s brain is still developing. We recognize this when it comes to voting, joining the military, or even buying a lottery ticket. We should give prosecutors and district attorneys the flexibility to recognize that as well when it comes to the age-appropriate sentencing that 41 other states and 66 percent of Louisianans support. In the end, it’s about not giving up on any young person,” Edwards said in a statement.
Dante Hills, 19, welcomed the new law, especially given his lobbying for its passage during Louisiana Youth Justice Day. The event attracted more than 300 young people to the state Legislature to ask lawmakers to support criminal justice reform.
“I am thrilled that the Legislature listened to the voices of young people like me who want to see this change happen,” he said in a statement. “All we want is a fair chance to succeed.”
The governor, the coalition reported, signed three other bills that would:
• Build a more effective and accountable school system within Louisiana’s juvenile justice facilities.
• Work to ensure children who are in prison have access to lawyers. Currently, 98 percent of indigent youth in juvenile prisons never see a public defender, according to advocates.
• Enable more youth who are convicted of nonviolent offenses to serve their time at home and with support.
Together, the four bills are only a first step, with supporters promising to push for broader criminal justice reforms next year.