Gov. Edwards, teens rally to include 17-year-olds in state juvenile justice system

Gov. Edwards, teens rally to include 17-year-olds in state juvenile justice system

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The governor joined hundreds of teens on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol Wednesday to rally in support of a bill to raise the age for the juvenile justice system.

As it stands, 17-year-olds in Louisiana are tried as adults and are sent to adult prisons. SB 324, sponsored by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, would modify the juvenile justice system to include 17-year-olds with some exceptions for capital cases.

"It is the right thing to do for Louisiana," Gov. John Bel Edwards said. "Raising the age means holding young people accountable for their actions in age-appropriate settings."

Each year, about 6,000 17-year-olds are arrested across the state. Only about 10 percent of those cases involve violent offenses, according to Joshua Perry, the Director of the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights.

"When we warehouse 17-year-olds alongside adults, we are breeding life-long offenders. That's not what we want when we think about how to keep our neighborhoods safe," Perry said.

Edwards said that the way the system is currently set up, it can hurt individuals in the long run. Young people in adult facilities can face high risks of sexual assault and violence. They also may not get the help they need.

"These arrests are on public record and can and often do impede their ability to finish their education and get a job," Edwards said.

Juvenile facilities, unlike adult prisons, offer educational and counseling opportunities for offenders.

"The juvenile justice system does a better job of preventing recidivism than the adult corrections system. This means that in the future, we will have fewer crime victims and less money spent on incarceration," Edwards said.

"17-year-olds can't vote, can't serve on juries, and they can't join [the] military. 17-year-olds are not adults," said student speaker Shawn Kelly, who is a member of the Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition.

Under the proposed bill, district attorneys would still retain the right to try 17-year-olds as adults in the case of capital offenses, including rape and murder.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, District Attorney Hillar Moore said he does not oppose the bill, but is concerned about whether the state Office of Juvenile Justice is adequately funded to make this change effective. In recent years, juvenile justice has seen repeated budget cuts and could see further cuts as part of next year's $750 million budget shortfall

"I absolutely believe if you get these children into families services, get them jobs, I think you'll see a change in recidivism to the better, but if you're just gonna put them in a system that's not working well now, that's not funded, I don't see how there's going to be a change," he said.

The bill was introduced in a Senate committee and is expected to come up for a vote in committee soon.

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