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Office of Juvenile Justice director resigns with Louisiana youth prisons in turmoil

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Office of Juvenile Justice director resigns with Louisiana youth prisons in turmoil

Nov 18, 2022 | 5:38 pm ET
By Greg LaRose
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Office of Juvenile Justice director resigns with Louisiana youth prisons in turmoil
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Damaged cause by residents at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe during a riot in May 2021. (Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice photos)

The person in charge of Louisiana’s juvenile jails has resigned, according to a statement Friday afternoon from Gov. John Bel Edwards. Bill Sommers’ departure comes while the state’s youth prisons have reached capacity. Incarcerated youth have been moved to a building on the Angola penitentiary campus for adults after frequent violent incidents at Office of Juvenile Justice sites.

Sommers had been in charge of the agency since 2020. Assistant Secretary Otha “Curtis” Nelson has been appointed interim deputy secretary, according to the governor.

“I am grateful to Bill for his service to our state,” Edwards said, in part, in the statement.  “He joined us during one of the most difficult periods in Louisiana’s history, leading OJJ through the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating natural disasters. Bill has also worked diligently to address the recent challenges within OJJ.

“Juvenile Justice work is challenging in the best of times, and OJJ’s work was made even harder by the pandemic,” the governor said. “At the same time we were seeing increases in young people entering the juvenile justice system, there were unprecedented challenges in hiring and retaining of staff for juvenile justice agencies across the country. These challenges have contributed to several unfortunate incidents in Louisiana.”

Lacking space, Louisiana officials ask judges to release incarcerated youth early

The relocation of incarcerated juveniles to Angola took place after fights and escapes at OJJ youth centers in Jefferson Parish and Monroe, resulting in staff injuries and attrition at facilities that were already short-handed. Capacity at the Bridge City Center for Youth has been reduced by a third. A riot at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe required a dormitory to be closed to repairs, work that could take another 18 months.

An ProPublica-NBC News investigation highlighted the questionable treatment of those incarcerated at the Acadiana Center for Youth in St. Martinville. Residents were held in solitary confinement over extended periods and placed in shackles.

More recently, the New York Times revealed widespread abuse are Ware Youth Center in Red River Parish. Staff knew of or took part in beatings, sexual assault and mental torture of incarcerated children, according to the report.

Conditions at OJJ facilities were discussed during a Friday meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children. Nelson appeared on Sommers’ behalf and told members he could not attend the hearing because of a “family emergency.”

Nelson came to the Office of Juvenile Justice earlier this year after holding the role of deputy judicial administrator for the Louisiana Supreme Court Division of Children and Families. His background includes adolescent mental health, family law in the juvenile court setting and prosecuting youth offenders for the 19th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

Sommers’ resignation marks the second exit of an Edwards’ administration leader in as many weeks. Last week, Secretary Marketa Walters left the Department of Child and Family Services with her agency under scrutiny for the deaths of three young children whose problem households had been reported to authorities.