Audit finds increase in violence at Office of Juvenile Justice facilities

(WVUE) - An increase in violence inside Louisiana's juvenile prisons in recent years is just one of the findings in a state legislative audit.

"What we did is we did an average number of fights per youth so you could compare years no matter how many kids were actually housed in the facilities," says Kristen Jacobs with the Legislative Auditor's Office.

The Office of Juvenile Justice oversees three facilities in the state, including the Bridge City Center for Youth, where FOX 8 has reported multiple arrests of juveniles in recent weeks due to violent incidents.

According to the report, in the past five years, there has been a 121 percent increase in violence at the Bridge City facility. Dr. James Bueche is head of the Office of Juvenile Justice.

"While we have less kids, the kids that are here are here because they committed violent behavior. They have a history. They can't be in community-based programs, so we're kind of the last stop for a lot of these kids," says Bueche.

The report also found staffing challenges at all of the OJJ-run facilities, in particular, a high number of turnovers. The turnovers make it difficult to maintain the required staff-to-youth ratio at the facilities. Auditors say not having enough properly trained staff can certainly contribute to the amount of violence inside the facilities.

"Not having experienced staff can cause some of those fights - not knowing how to de-escalate a fight successfully," says Jacobs.

"I think if we were able to increase our salary, recruit staff a little bit better to deal with our population, that turnover would decrease," says Bueche.

The legislative auditor says OJJ needs to strengthen oversight and increase efforts to keep employees and juveniles safe.

Dr. Bueche says budget constraints are making it more difficult to comply.

"It's hard to plan from a staffing standpoint and how much we can pay our staff when we don't know what our budget is going to be from year to year," says Bueche.

Dr. Bueche points out OJJ's budget was decreased by $71 million over the past 10 years.

"If it stays the way it is and we don't get any additional revenue from the special session, we're looking at having to lay off another 114 staff, and we're looking at having to close programs," says Bueche.

Still, he says OJJ is making an effort to change its data collection methods and staff the facilities properly.

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