Poll: Most want state to include 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system

A strong majority of Louisianans believes 17-year-olds should be treated as juveniles by the justice system, according to a poll conducted by the Louisiana State University Public Policy Lab on behalf of the Power Coalition 2015 People’s Survey.

The statewide poll found that 66 percent of adults favored moving 17-year-olds charged with minor offenses to the juvenile justice system; 29 percent did not; and 6 percent were undecided. The margin for error was +/- 3.1 percentage points. Across political party, race, gender, age and income level, a majority favored getting 17-year-olds out of the adult criminal justice system. Louisiana is one of only nine states that still automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults, even for the most minor of charges. More than 90 percent of the crimes committed by juveniles in Louisiana are non-violent.

“Research shows that when kids are handled by the juvenile system, they are far less likely to break the law a second time. Louisiana residents are strongly backing a reform that will keep their neighborhoods safer,” said Josh Perry, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. “A high-functioning juvenile justice system is designed to hold adolescents accountable while preparing them to be successful in the long-term.”

The Centers for Disease Control has found that keeping kids in the juvenile systepicture sadm reduces recidivism by 34 percent. This is because the juvenile justice system is focused on rehabilitation and mandates that youth go to school, participate in counseling and engage in other programs that address the root causes of their behavior. The adult system generally does not. Furthermore, an adult record cuts off opportunities to education, employment, military service, and other positive activities that contribute to reform.

The same poll found that state residents favor a rehabilitative approach to youth in trouble: 73 percent favored expanding treatment and counseling for those arrested under the age of 18, as opposed to sending young people to prison.

Because 17-year-olds are considered adults in the justice system, police are under no obligation to call parents when an arrest is made. A 17-year-old can be interrogated and even agree to a plea bargain without any parental involvement.

Adult jails and prisons are dangerous places for 17-year-olds. The suicide rate for minors in adult facilities is eight times that of youth in juvenile facilities and 36 times that of adult inmates.

The federal Prison Rape Elimination Commission identified minors in adult prisons as the group most at risk for sexual assault. Federal law now requires that minor and adult prisoners be separated by sight and sound. Complying with the law will require parishes and the state to perform expensive renovations to jails and prisons. Non-compliance will make the state ineligible for certain federal funds and expose it to enormous moral and civil liability.

A broad coalition supporting a reform to “Raise the Age” expects legislation to be introduced in the upcoming session to move 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system. The proposal would still allow 17-year-olds charged with serious, violent crimes to be charged as adults.

This is an especially opportune time to Raise the Age, because existing capacity in the juvenile justice system exceeds the number of 17-year-olds currently in custody of the adult Department of Corrections. Only 219 of the state’s 587 juvenile detention beds are full on a given day, according to data provided by Louisiana to the federal office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Louisiana’s juvenile arrests have fallen by 40 percent over the past decade, and juvenile court filings are down 19.4 percent in the past eight years. The state has just built a new secure juvenile facility with an additional 72 beds – more than enough to house the handful of 17-year-olds in the Department of Corrections.

“Raising the Age is better for kids and families. It is also better for everyone who calls Louisiana home. These young people will be living in our neighborhoods for many years to come,” said Eden Heilman, managing attorney of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Louisiana office and a core member of the “Raise the Age” coalition. “The question is: Do we want their experience with the justice system to make them better neighbors, friends and colleagues? Or do we want to set them on a path to more trouble?”

This article was carried in The Creole of Ascension Parish and in the Ouachita Citizen.