Stricter juvenile measures face more Senate scrutiny
Three proposals a Louisiana Senate committee approved Tuesday lean harder on youth who are accused of violent crime — even those eventually found innocent — but a critical fiscal review lies ahead that could muffle lawmakers’ calls for juvenile accountability.
Critics of the measures question whether they are constitutionally sound, lending more credence to their possible veto on the governor’s desk should they advance from the legislature.
The Senate Judiciary B Committee advanced two bills that would lift the curtain of confidentiality from certain juvenile court cases. Another measure members backed would treat 17-year-olds accused of carjacking as adults.
Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, agreed Tuesday in committee to have House Bill 321 amended to expand the Truth and Transparency pilot program from three parishes to five and counting. If it becomes law, it would make juvenile court records public in the applicable jurisdictions.
“I simply, fundamentally disagree that we need to continue to coddle juvenile offenders,” Villio said after hearing arguments for and against her bill.
Her original proposal targeted Orleans, East Baton Rouge and Caddo, which she has noted have some of the nation’s highest violent crime rates. Judiciary B Committee members added Bossier and Lafayette parishes to her bill, and another amendment would allow other parishes to opt into the pilot program if so desired. Villio’s home parish of Jefferson is not included in the bill.
Before Villio’s legislation left the House floor, an amendment was added to require state financing for the pilot program. That means it also has to go through the Senate Finance Committee, where lawmakers tend to draw the state budget purse strings tighter as the legislative session goes on.
Like Villio’s pilot program, House Bill 208 from Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, also needs Senate Finance approval. The version of his proposal that received House approval called for all 17-year-olds accused of a crime of violence to be tried as adults. Sen. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, revised the legislation in committee Tuesday to only cover carjacking cases.
Even then, the bill still carries a price tag because the state’s correctional system still has to treat 17-year-olds as juveniles, meaning they can’t have contact or be within view of incarcerated adults.
Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-New Orleans, received approval from Senate Judiciary B for what could be considered an offspring of the Villio and Seabaugh proposals. House Bill 160 would clear the way for victims or their family to share openly what they hear at juvenile court proceedings, which are currently held in confidence. Hilferty’s legislation would apply to crimes of violence and second and subsequent felony offenses.
House Bill 160 bill amounts to adding “gasoline on the fire,” said Bruce Reilly, co-founder of Voice of the Experienced, an advocacy group for the formerly incarcerated. He predicted word of mouth from juvenile court hearings would create a retaliatory domino effect that contributes to youth violent crime, rather than reduce it, if Hilferty’s bill becomes law.
Her proposal, which would allow courts to provide online video access to juvenile courts to victims and family if available, has no impact on the state’s finances.
Meghan Garvey with the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers opposed all three bills. She reminded the committee of the state’s legal obligation to treat accused and convicted juveniles differently from adult offenders.
“Part of that is to protect children, and part of that is that the entire juvenile process is not meant to be punitive,” Garvey said. “It’s not convictions, it’s meant to be rehabilitative.”
Ashley Hamilton of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, took issue with the removal of confidentiality from juvenile court proceedings, stressing the potential lifelong impact on youth who are cleared of wrongdoing.
“This bill equates exposure with accountability,’’ Hamilton said of Villio’s bill. “Accountability comes through the justice system, not public shame and ostracism.”
The committee also heard from neutral party Jack Harrison, a faculty member at LSU’s law school and widely recognized authority on juvenile criminal law and procedure. He shared his concerns that open juvenile court records and proceedings could have “a chilling effect on people participating in the process,” such as witnesses opting not to appear in court and victims choosing to not to report crime.
Opponents and lawmakers on the Senate committee questioned repeatedly why legislation wasn’t brought forward to compel district attorneys to keep victims and their families informed throughout juvenile court proceedings, which state law already prescribes.
Villio deflected similar suggestions when her bill made its way through the House and has resisted calls to add her home Jefferson Parish, the state’s second most populous, to the pilot program.
Lawmakers must conclude the session by June 8, creating an even tighter timeline for any bills that still need fiscal approval and then concurrence from the House on any Senate amendments.