BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A bill has been signed into law which will make it possible for 17-year-olds accused of a crime in Louisiana not to be automatically treated as adults as it relates to prosecution.
Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the Raise the Age Act into law Tuesday which will include 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system. The governor said this was a down payment on reform and long overdue.
It has been 108 years since Louisiana reviewed the age at which children are treated as adults for the purpose of criminal prosecution. Before the act, Louisiana was one of nine states that charges 17-year-olds as adults, trying them in adult courts and sending them to adult jails regardless of the crime.
SB 324, which was authored by Rep. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said that it will limit the number of repeat offenders and save the state money in the long term.
"The recidivism of a juvenile in an adult facility is almost 90 percent," Morrell said. "So simply taking them out of the adult facilities, putting them in the juvenile facilities, means they don't go to the adult facility and begins that process of lowering how much we depend on incarceration as a mechanism of fighting crime."
Edwards supported the bill and included it in his legislative package during the 2016 regular session. He said, "treating 17-year-old offenders as adults is costing our state too much money."
Barbara O'Bear is one of many politicians who fought for the bill.
"It's to tighten up their belts," she said. "We have to start from the younger ones on up to that age to win a generation."
Rachel Gassert, a policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, said Louisiana is finally joining up with a majority of other states that already have similar legislation.
"17-year-olds are still in high school and are still defined as children in any other measure of the law," she said. "They can't vote, they can't buy cigarettes, they can barely even see an R-rated movie, so we think this is age-appropriate."
The reforms do not go into effect right away, but instead will be phased in over the next few years with non-violent crimes being handled by the juvenile justice system starting on July 1, 2018 and more serious or violent crimes being taken on two years later.
District attorneys still have the duty to evaluate charges on more serious crimes and can still charge 17-year-olds as adults if they deem its needed.