ROBERT, La. (West Side Journal) – A holding facility for juvenile offender could go a long way toward their rehabilitation and a life away from criminal behavior, according to District Attorney Tony Clayton.
Clayton and others from the 18th Judicial District believe he may the facility he and others toured recently could serve as the model for what they would like to see for West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes.
He and several officials – including Assistant D.A. Jessel M. Ourso III and District Judge Kevin Kimball, among others – made the trip to Robert, La., at the border of Tangipahoa and St. Tammany parishes, to gather ideas on what Clayton hopes will lead to a creation of a facility on the Westbank.
“They do an exceptional job at the Florida Parishes facility, and while they have population of up to 150 beds, we don’t need more than 25 percent of their capacity,” he said. “I’d like to replicate what they’ve done.”
Clayton said he believes the plan could come to fruition, but it would probably require a millage.
“I didn’t think so at first, but now I think so, but once we put a dent in juvenile crimes, which decreases property values, this would make it a more wholesome place to raise a family without fear of something that happens criminally to your loved ones,” he said.
Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi said the increasingly violent nature of juveniles warrants the need for a facility, but he said he would push for a tax on the facility.
“We pay a lot of taxes, and I made a commitment that as long as I was sheriff, I wasn’t going to ask to pass a tax, and I’m going to live by that during my sheriff’s career,” he said. “I’m for having a facility, but I’m not going to be the one to bring forth a tax on the people. It’s something I promised people when I was elected, and I’m going to live up to it.”
Stassi said he has talked with Clayton about a juvenile detention facility, but three parishes may not be enough to support it.
“Historically, you have to go more than three parishes to keep the beds full, especially with the criteria you have for juveniles with all the rules and regulations,” Stassi said. “It’s a monumental deal financially.”
The St. James Juvenile Detention Center was a highly touted state-of-the-art facility when it opened in 1991, but the costs became unsustainable.
The facility – which served Ascension, St. James and Assumption parishes – shuttered in July 2013.
A facility would only succeed through a long-term plan before dirt, bricks and mortar enter the equation, Stassi said.
“The problem is that you can’t just wake up one morning and decide you’re going to have this kind of facility,” he said. “It takes quite an undertaking to have something like that.”
He said the number of juvenile offenders also spiked through legislation when state law raised the minimum age for trial as an adult from 17 to 18.
The facility operates under the auspices of the Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice District, created in 1986 through a state legislative resolution for the 21st and 22nd Judicial districts. It encompasses the parishes of Livingston. St. Helena, St. Tammany, and Washington.
It operates under the Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice Commission, composed of eight commissioners.
The district operates off a 10-year, 3-mill property tax paid by the five parishes. It generates approximately $9 million per year.
The facility opened in 1994 with a 31-bed capacity and has since grown to 133 beds. It has become one of the most highly regarded facilities of its kind in the U.S.
The facility provides education in a cooperative endeavor with the Tangipahoa school system. It also teaches arts, gardening, cooking and other activities.
Facility Director Joey Dominick says he has seen the merits of the program. He gets calls on almost a daily basis from former detainees, who share their stories with him.
“I have some who call and tell me they’re working as a mechanic, a job in retail or sanitation … all of them are productive,” he said.
“I even had one call from Washington, D.C., to tell me he was now working for the Department of Homeland Security, and it’s stories like that which make me love this program.”
A merit system that promotes proper behavior and responsibility serves as one of the cornerstones.
“They do an exceptional job, Clayton said. “We believe that partnership will eventually lead us to having a state-of-the-art facility, and that we will be able to help fight juvenile crime and help facilitate the educational components so when they’re released, they can be productive citizens.”
Stassi agrees, however, that law enforcement authorities need to work with Clayton on ways to curb the rising number of juvenile crimes.
“We have a large-scale amount of people who are in that window, so we need to have a place for those convicted of more serious crimes so we can get those people off the streets,” Stassi said.
“We’ve had some juveniles who have done some really bad crimes, but all in all, we don’t have the type of crimes we’ve seen in East Baton Rouge Parish.
“But when they do have these crimes, we need to have a place for these juveniles to be housed because some of these criminals do not need to be put back on the street,” he said. “But getting that facility is much easier said than done.”