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Juvenile justice official suggests Louisiana prosecutors should charge more minors as adults

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Juvenile justice official suggests Louisiana prosecutors should charge more minors as adults

Aug 09, 2022 | 10:58 am ET
By Julie O'Donoghue
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Juvenile justice official suggests Louisiana prosecutors should charge more minors as adults
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Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish is one of the juvenile justice facilities that has seen several outbreaks of violence and escapes. (Photo by Greg LaRose/Illuminator)

A new administrator for the state Office of Juvenile Justice suggested Monday that Louisiana prosecutors need to consider charging more underage teenagers with adult crimes. His stance has rankled child welfare advocates who believe people under 18 should not face adult prison sentences that can last decades. 

Juvenile justice facilities across Louisiana have been overwhelmed with violence and breakouts over the past two years. Curtis Nelson, assistant secretary for the Office of Juvenile Justice, said safety could be improved if some young people currently in the juvenile justice system had been sent to the adult prison system instead. 

“We’re going to be speaking with our [district attorneys]. As a former prosecutor, there’s a concept in the system that I feel like we need to re-educate the public on … whether or not a youth is amenable to juvenile justice rehabilitation,” Nelson told the Louisiana Senate Select Committee on Women and Children at its hearing Monday.

“Unfortunately there are some youth that by the time they get to the system, they’re not going to respond in a positive manner to the degree of treatment that we want to provide,” he said. “And so, the conversation we want to have with the DAs is when you get that case, it’s important that you screen it properly.” 

Nelson sits on several advisory groups and committees in state government and for the Louisiana Bar Association that focus on juvenile justice. He previously worked in the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s office as a prosecutor focused on juvenile cases and oversaw child welfare policy efforts for the Louisiana Supreme Court.

While working as a prosecutor, Nelson occasionally recommended that minors get tried as adults in the criminal justice system, particularly when the youths had several prior offenses. He thinks other prosecutors should do the same. 

“We need to have those conversations because not every youth that comes to us is a good fit,” he said. 

Nelson’s comments upset child welfare advocates, who said the juvenile justice’s system can’t be fixed by removing a handful of youth and sending them to adult lockups.  

“At the end of the day, I think it’s an admission of their own failure,” said Andrew Clark-Rizzio, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which represents minors in criminal justice proceedings. “What services and support do they think children will receive in the adult system? … Would this only help the adults working at OJJ?” 

Hector Linares, who runs the youth justice section of Loyola University’s law clinic, said moving underage youth into adult prisons has proven to be counterproductive. Studies show it can increase a person’s chance of returning to crime if they are released from prison, he said.

“If they say that, it’s just an opinion that contradicts the evidence,” Linares said. “Sending youth to adult jails does not make us safer. That’s not my opinion. That is what the data says.”