Opinion by J.P. Morrell | NOLA.com
Seventeen-year-old kids cannot vote, enlist in the military or sign a contract. However, if they are arrested in Louisiana, they are automatically prosecuted as adults. We have the dubious distinction of being one of the only states with this practice.
Two years ago, I authored a bill to remedy this situation by moving 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system, as most of the country does.
The “Raise the Age Act” was selected to be part of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ legislative package and enjoyed overwhelming support by my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Dozens of co-authors echoed a very simple sentiment: It was time to join the rest of the country, the rest of the civilized world, and not lock up children with adults.
Yet this important reform may be another casualty of the upcoming fiscal cliff.
Gov. Edwards’ “doomsday budget” — the slash and burn budget that he is required to produce without revenue in sight — includes significant cuts to the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ). These cuts would decimate the agency’s ability to safely and effectively serve the existing youth in its care, let alone the 17-year-olds we’re trying to save.
When we passed Raise the Age, the Legislature committed to a better future for our young people and our state.
Youth who are included in the juvenile system are less likely to re-offend because the system is better suited to meet the unique needs of adolescents. OJJ provides rigorous programming and rehabilitative services that are simply not available in the adult system. If OJJ and its partner agencies like the Department of Health are slashed, they will no longer be able to provide the essential services that at-risk children need to get back on track.
Youth in the juvenile system are also protected from the physical and sexual abuse that is endemic to adult jails and prisons. Just this week, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a 17-year-old who was raped in East Baton Rouge’s adult jail. Had Raise the Age been in effect at the time, this child would not have been in an adult jail and would have been spared this horrifying experience.
Saving these kids is an investment that has both a moral and financial return. We lead the nation in incarceration and poor outcomes, but if we invest in young people now, we will lower our costs down the line. LSU projects that raising the age will save us $20 million annually in reduced recidivism costs. At that rate, the $11 million proposed cut to OJJ now would cost us $100 million in savings in just five years.
We don’t want to continue to pay the human and financial costs of over-incarceration. That’s why we passed Raise the Age, and that’s why we spent the past year finding ways to reduce our prison population and save the state millions of dollars. But all our hard work is for naught if we cannot agree to fund a functioning government and turn legislation that we should be proud of into reality.
It’s time for all of us to stand together and demand that the Legislature stops giving lip service to its stated priorities. Whether it’s Raise the Age, TOPS scholarships or early childhood education, we cannot continue to pass legislation to improve the lives of our families, and then choose not to fund the initiatives we’ve created.
And we cannot cut vital services for kids to save money now because we will pay tenfold for it in decades to come. Unemployment, incarceration and a woefully unskilled workforce are what we will reap through the seeds of our inaction.
We can’t afford to give up on our kids. They depend on us, and we can’t let them down. I encourage all legislators to come together and address the urgency of this dire situation. Let’s work together, with Gov. Edwards, for a lasting solution to our budget woes.
It’s time to hold the Legislature accountable for the promises we have made.