Friday, February 20, 2009

Juvenile justice system undergoing house cleaning

Associated Press Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Some innovation is happening in Louisiana's derided system of handling delinquent children.

Rapides and Jefferson parishes are trying to fix what's considered the key problem in the juvenile justice system: too many children, some accused of first-time, minor offenses, get hauled in front of a judge facing charges.

"We felt like those cases shouldn't be in the court system, and that the court should really be reserved for more serious offenders," said Daphne Robinson, an assistant district attorney for Rapides Parish.

Truancy was the source of 65 percent of total juvenile offenses processed in Jefferson Parish's court system in 2006, according to new data from Paul Frick, a University of New Orleans research professor. Frick also found that only 25 percent of youths in the court system in Rapides and Jefferson parishes were facing "true delinquent" charges; the rest were accused of truancy, underage drinking, curfew violations and other nonviolent offenses.

The goal is to get cases such as truancy dealt with at school, or another intermediate facility, rather than in a courtroom — though judges and prosecutors consider the offense serious, partly because it can lead to far worse.

"When you've got a kid who's on the street for eight hours, instead of being in school, the possibility is great that that child will get into some conduct that can lead to trouble," Robinson said.

Robinson is overseeing Alexandria's new "Neighborhood Accountability Board," which will essentially take the place of a judge in minor, first-offense cases. She said the panel will probably be made up of former educators and community leaders with an interest in children and improving the city and parish.

The board, meeting in a recreation center will pass judgment on children caught in first-offense violations such as breaking curfews, underage drinking, vandalism or shoplifting.

Board members will have the power to hand down creative sentences, some more educational than punitive. A young vandal might be forced to write a letter of apology to his victim. Or mow the victim's lawn every week for a few months — something like community service, but aimed at providing a service to the harmed party and maybe teaching the kid a lesson.

Robinson has said she believes diverting first-time offenders away from the court system could save the parish over $3 million per offender, if it succeeds in lowering the rate that first-offenders commit further crimes, thus reducing future prosecutions and incarcerations.

The board will get a briefing at its next meeting, on Monday, from the head of the St. Louis board it was modeled after.

The Rapides innovations, and others elsewhere in the state, are the fruits of grants from the Chicago-based Catherine D. and John T. MacArthur Foundation.

Robinson said teens' low-level crimes usually stem from troubles at home, mental illness or just plain bad parenting — problems better addressed in school or by a social worker, not a prosecutor and a judge. If those troubles can be remedied, she says a teenager has a better shot at avoiding more serious crimes.

"If everybody was a great parent, we probably wouldn't have the cases we have in Juvenile Court," Robinson said.

Truancy in particular is a problem caused by parents, said District Court Judge Patricia Koch of Alexandria.

"Some people just don't force their kids to get up and go to school. Isn't that insane? It's not just poor children, it's across the board," Koch said. "The parents just give up. They say, 'I have to leave and go to work,' and the kid doesn't go to school."

Koch and Robinson's work in Rapides is the latest sign that Louisiana is slowly cleaning up a juvenile justice system that, not long ago, was considered the nation's most violent and least effective. Those involved in the process to improve the system say the state has finally moved away from its old lock-'em-up attitude, toward one that acknowledges that the descent of children into violent crime can be prevented.

"We're learning," said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney's Association. "Obviously, it comes down to money, and it's hard to change things, but we're getting there."


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