BATON ROUGE, La. — Gov. John Bel Edwards is willing to postpone Louisiana’s plans to raise the age of adult prosecution by one year amid concerns about having enough money to enact the change, the governor’s office said Tuesday.
In 2016, lawmakers voted to stop automatically routing 17-year-olds through the adult criminal justice system when arrested. The prosecution age change is being phased in, with the juvenile justice system to start handling 17-year-olds charged with non-violent crimes on July 1. Offenders charged with more serious or violent crimes will join two years later.
A proposal sponsored by Sen. Ronnie Johns and backed by district attorneys and sheriffs would delay the entire shift until 2020— and only if “adequate funding” is deemed available.
Supporters of postponement say Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice isn’t ready to handle the change and doesn’t have enough space in juvenile lock-up facilities. They also warn that the threat of budget cuts in the upcoming financial year, which starts July 1, could make that problem worse.
Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said the Democratic governor, who championed the “Raise the Age” law two years ago, won’t agree to a two-year delay. But Carbo said Edwards would agree to postpone the change until 2019 — with implementation sooner if dollars are available to cover costs.
“We are working on a compromise that would delay it until 2019 … sooner should the funds become available. 2019 would just be the hard date,” Carbo said in an email.
Johns, a Lake Charles Republican, stalled his bill Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary A Committee, while efforts to reach an agreement continue behind the scenes.
Critics of Johns’ proposal said any effort to delay would “roll back reform.”
“I share your concerns about how we’re going to deal with this,” said Sen. Jay Luneau, an Alexandria Democrat. “I understand this is going to be difficult to do, but at the same time, I understand this is something we should have done a long time ago.”
Juvenile justice advocates hailed Louisiana’s Legislature for agreeing to raise the adult prosecution age, saying that would boost efforts to rehabilitate young offenders.
Advocates for changing the prosecution age said the adult system places the teenagers at a greater risk of physical and sexual assault; often isolates them for long periods of time; deprives them of education; and puts them at an increased risk of suicide.
“Kids can’t afford to wait any longer,” said Rachel Gassert, policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.
At the time the legislation was passed, a financial analysis found the transition could cost the state nearly $3 million before seeing any long-term savings from possible reductions to youth recidivism. The Office of Juvenile Justice is proposed for a cut of as much as $14 million next year to its $123 million budget, along with delay in opening a youth prison facility in Bunkie.
“We’re looking at not being able to serve the kids we have under our care now,” James Bueche, deputy secretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice, told senators.
Senate Bill 248: www.legis.la.gov
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