Leslie Turk

Youth prison head under fire before resignation

by Leslie Turk

In a commentary published across the state today, the AP's Doug Simpson looks at the controversial appointment and subsequent suprise resignation of Richard Thompson, head of the state Office of Youth Development, which oversees youth prisons. Thompson, who became the first departure from Gov. Bobby Jindal's Cabinet when he announced his resignation July 25, has yet to say why he left.

"He took charge in February at an agency that has been trying to shake Louisiana’s reputation as a state that locks up its young prisoners without bothering to train them for life on the outside," Simpson wrote. "Critics didn’t like Thompson from the start, even before he arrived in Baton Rouge with an unusual résumé that included cosmetology in the Caribbean. Once in office, he failed to impress the panel of elected officials that oversees his office." (Thompson owns the Hispanic American College in Caguas, Puerto Rico, which offers degrees in manicures and hair styling. He did not sell the beauty school to take over the job here.)

Soon after Thompson took control of the office, the Legislature ordered the shut down of the Jetson youth prison near Baton Rouge because of an increase in complaints about violence and a lack of educational and job training programs. Shuttering Jetson is part of a long-term reform plan, accelerated under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, to send teen offenders to education-focused facilities, rather than lock them up in high-security prisons. The plan is to gradually transfer teens out of Jetson and into these smaller facilities, partly to keep them closer geographically to their families. The Legislature gave Thompson till Sept. 1 to offer a plan for transferring Jetson’s teens. Instead, Thompson has decided to move back to Puerto Rico.

"At best," notes Simpson, "Thompson had a communication problem with his overseers on the Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission, made up of Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, Supreme Court Justice Kitty Kimball and others."

Simpson notes that Jindal spokesman Timmy Teepell has done nothing to squelch speculation Thompson was forced out.

Let's hope that replacing Thompson -- in a timely fashion and with someone much more qualified -- is a top priority for the governor. While Shreveport native Mary Livers has been named a temporary replacement, the administration says it will conduct a national search.