The Lawyer. March 20, 2022.
Editorial: The juvenile justice system must be held to much higher standards
About 31 youths have been assigned to a high-security St. Martinville ‘transitional treatment unit’ since it opened, though few knew the facility existed, how it operated – or that the people running it were raping apparently the law.
It seems that the Acadiana Center for Youth in St. Martinville operated on a need-to-know basis.
In a set of disturbing stories published in this newspaper and elsewhere, ProPublica, The Marshall Project and NBC News have described how young people were warehoused in the facility with little to no education, counseling, mental health support , physical activity or human interaction – all conditions that run counter to the system’s mission to help juvenile offenders lead productive lives.
“It’s like you put all the things we talk about that are so wrong with our youth justice system and put them in one facility,” said Carmen Daugherty, director of policy at Youth First Initiative, a rights organization. Another advocate compared the conditions to “child abuse”.
Bureau of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Beth Touchet-Morgan said the facility was for “young people who have demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to stop violent and aggressive acts.”
We understand that these children present major challenges to the system. Youths housed at the facility have been accused or convicted of serious crimes, including theft of cars and firearms, escaping from detention centers and beating of facility guards. A teenager broke an officer’s arm.
But we have serious concerns about the conditions of the unit and its very existence.
News agencies uncovered young people subjected to isolation, shackling and limited counseling and education. Solicitors and attorneys representing two of them said one saw an adviser for 30 minutes a week and the other had to wait two weeks to see an adviser.
Louisiana law requires six hours of instruction per day, but youth representatives said one had 45 minutes of online instruction per day and the other only met his teacher once times. In fact, the state Department of Education, which provides classes for incarcerated youth, only learned of the establishment after several months of opening.
Louisiana officials have promised to favor a therapeutic model over child confinement, but history also noted that the state has failed to adequately fund more modern approaches.
Perry Stagg, the assistant secretary of the Bureau of Juvenile Justice, attributed some of the failures to staffing issues.
“We were basically in emergency mode,” he said. “It wasn’t something we were just careless about. It took a while to set up. »
Officials say the facility was born out of necessity.
“We have young people in our care who are not ready for therapy and who do not want to follow the same path as others, and we do not have the facilities or the manpower to keep them in these dorms. “, Bill Sommers, the agency’s deputy secretary, told a juvenile justice commission last year.
Maybe, but we think there has to be a more productive and humane way.
In fact, state officials say they do too and note that the St. Martinville facility was set up as a temporary solution while a more secure area at the Swanson Center for Youth can be built. .
“If we can get them into a more isolated setting, that allows us to separate those children, offer individual services, work with them individually, provide mentorship, build relationships and try to work with them. them to get them to a place where we can put them back in a general population setting where they can participate and not be disruptive,” Stagg said.
We should all hold them to this standard.
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