LOUISIANA’S JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM NOT REFORMED ENOUGH TO PROTECT THE MOST VULNERABLE
Louisiana’s juvenile justice system has seen vast improvement since stakeholders joined together and committed to reform. In a state that was once known for some of the most brutal youth prisons in the country, leaders have taken important steps forward to ensure the system is dedicated to therapeutic, rehabilitative services rather than just punishment for crimes.
However, according to “Locked Up & Out,” a report released today by the Juvenile Justice Project of LA, youth continue to report physical and sexual abuse, psychological abuse, excessive use of lockdown and isolation, confidentiality breaches and privacy violations, as well as insufficient post-disposition representation which results in limited access to the court system and therefore a lower probability of obtaining early release when warranted.
The report focuses on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) youth, who make up 15% of youth in detention nationwide. “As a Youth Advocate, I visit facilities to talk with youth about the conditions they face daily and the resources they need to succeed once released. The stories I have heard from LGBT youth, both about the extreme challenges they have endured and about their courage and determination, inspired this report,” says Wesley Ware, the report’s author. “Once inside prison, LGBT youth often bear the worst the system has to offer.”
A national Bureau of Justice Statistics report released in January indicated that 12% of youth on average reported they were sexually assaulted while incarcerated, that Louisiana generally fit that statistic, but that at Swanson Center for Youth, the state’s largest juvenile justice prison, 16.6% of youth reported they had been sexually abused.
One 15-year old’s letter to JJPL, published in the report, tells this story: “The first time I was here, they sent me to Swanson [Center for Youth]. I stayed there for about 11 months before I got raped by some of the youths there. I did not report it on time so they did not do anything about it. But they did send me to a group home in Shreveport. There, I tried to kill myself because I could not take the boys hitting on me because I would not do sexual favors for them.”
That youth’s fear of violence is not uncommon. LGBT youth are often faced with violence, and they may be more likely to receive additional charges while in the facility for fighting, be issued disciplinary tickets, or be held on lockdown/isolation because they are reportedly defending themselves from such sexual attacks. They also experience psychological attacks; one youth reported that he was called a derogatory name 20 times per day. The report calls for the psychological abuse to be addressed as seriously as the physical abuse because LGBT youth are more likely to attempt suicide when experiencing harassment.
LGBT youth are not only are treated poorly once they are adjudicated delinquent, but also are overrepresented in juvenile justice programming and facilities. The report describes challenges LGBT youth face at school, at home, in prevention/intervention programming, with police, with substance abuse, and in group homes and detention centers that lead to their being funneled even deeper into the system.
Recommendations for a stronger juvenile justice system that acknowledges the needs of LGBT youth include:
- Full implementation of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003 (Act 1225), including movement toward smaller homelike facilities like those in Missouri, increased funding for community-based alternative programs, and downsizing the number of youth in secure care facilities, especially at Swanson Center for Youth.
- Trainings for all Office of Juvenile Justice staff on best practices when working with LGBT youth and HIV+ youth, both developed with guidance of experts in those respective fields
- Implemented uniform Office of Juvenile Justice policies on: non-discrimination, expected best-practice staff behavior towards LGBT youth, and treatment of HIV-positive youth and youth with other medical conditions, as well as consequences for noncompliance.
- Review of current OJJ programming to determine possible negative impact on youth, making needed changes, and adding programs and services to ensure LGBT youth have their needs met, including HIV/AIDS and STD testing, treatment, education, and counseling; resources and education on LGBT issues; and partnerships with LGBT community organizations.
Locked Up & Out is the first report of its kind, addressing a population usually invisible in Louisiana’s juvenile justice system while also focusing on systemic changes that would improve conditions for all court-involved youth.
The full report is available for download HERE.