In the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, we house just a handful of 17-year-olds each day in our adult jail, though we wish that number were zero. Because Louisiana is one of only nine states that prosecute every 17-year-old as an adult — even for the most minor offenses — these kids walk through our doors.
Outside, these kids are juniors in high school. We don’t offer a high school education in the jail. Our staff is not equipped to manage the unique needs of adolescents. And most of the offenders we house have been through the system before — they are not the right peers for 17-year-old children.
Research shows that 17-year-olds prosecuted as adults are more likely to re-offend. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that processing a minor as an adult increases recidivism by as much as 34 percent. In Louisiana, recidivism rates for youth released from the Department of Corrections are more than double those of similarly aged youth released from the Office of Juvenile Justice’s secure facilities.
Including 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system will improve safety in our jails. We work hard to keep all our inmates safe, but youth in adult facilities are at greater risk of sexual assault that any other group of prisoners. This is why the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act requires that we take specific steps to protect minors in our facilities. But LPCC was not designed to house youth under 18 separately from adults, as required by law. Retrofitting would be difficult and expensive. While we do our best to protect young people, simply moving them to more appropriate juvenile facilities will keep them safer and make better use of
staff time and public money.
Right now, the Legislature is considering Senate Bill 324, which will “Raise the Age” of juvenile jurisdiction to 18. The bill doesn’t affect district attorneys’ discretion to prosecute 17-year-olds who commit serious or violent crimes in the adult system. But the vast majority of 17-year-olds are arrested for minor, nonviolent crimes and should remain in the juvenile justice system, where the possibility of reform is far greater.
Raising the age is right for Lafayette Parish, and it’s right for Louisiana. We hope the Legislature will pass this very smart public safety bill.
Mike Neustrom is sheriff of Lafayette Parish, and Rob Reardon is director of corrections for the sheriff’s department.