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Senate bill aims to improve juvenile justice system moves forward to House floor

Published: May. 18, 2022 at 5:38 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The Louisiana House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice voted to move Senate Bill 323 forward to the House floor for a vote.

The bill, authored by Senator Heather Cloud (R-La., District 28), proposes a tiered system where juveniles are assessed and then separated into certain juvenile detention centers based on risk.

Juveniles would be assessed according to age, education, mental status and risk as they enter the system. From there, the juvenile is placed in a low, medium or high-risk facility.

On Tuesday, May 17, New Orleans police officers arrested 20 year old Jonathan Sheard, an escapee from the Bridge City Center for Youth. According to the police report, Sheard convinced three other juveniles to help him beat up a female guard before escaping in April.

In the past five months, a total of nine juveniles escaped from Bridge City Center for Youth, and this problem is being seen across Louisiana.

“It was 10:30 at night when I was called. I still have nightmares,” said Michelle Piazza, a guard for a Swanson Center for Youth facility. She testified her experience before state lawmakers on Wednesday, May 18.

“Last year on May 3, two youth tried to escape. They called me at home because I’m a responder. I was escorting one to the administration area to put him in behavioral intervention,” she said. “After I unrestrained him, he attacked me.”

She said her attacker fractured her leg, crushed her knee and beat her until she passed out. Then the juvenile went live on Instagram using her phone to brag about it.

Another guard testified before the committee adding he was struck on the back of his head with a metal pipe by a juvenile after responding to an escape in which several juveniles tried to jump a fence. He said he had to receive eight staples on his head for his injury.

State lawmakers said they want to fix the problems with the Office of Juvenile Justice-- problems like violence and escapes.

“I have a facility in Avoyelles Parish, which I represent, which has been plagued with violence, juvenile on juvenile crime, juvenile on guard crime, and escapes,” said Sen. Cloud. “The bill is structural in nature and to address deficiencies within the current model which are evident.”

A new facility under construction in Monroe will be considered a high-risk facility if SB323 is signed into law.

“We’re setting OJJ up for success in a program we can all be proud of and not read about in the paper,” she said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the OJJ said:

“In an effort to mitigate future escapes, the Office of Juvenile Justice has installed razor mesh fencing, employed off-duty sheriff deputies to patrol the perimeter of the complex, tree removal, and upgrades to CCTV systems that provide geothermal imaging throughout the complex.”

Another bill under consideration would add additional jail time to juveniles who commit a felony crime at a youth detention center.

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