By Gwen Filosa, The Times-Picayune
February 23, 2010

Juvenile justice in Louisiana making transition from confinement to treatment
New Orleans, LA Times Picayune

Pete Adams, far left, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, joins other justice and state officials entering Harmony dormitory Tuesday during a tour of the Bridge City Center for Youth.

This isn't the same Louisiana lock-up where a teenager died after a guard knocked him to the ground seven years ago, one of the last horrors to unfold at a youth prison before the state ended its historic practice of treating juvenile delinquents the same as adult convicts.

For starters, the 132-bed riverside campus is called the Bridge City Center for Youth, not a "correctional" facility. Instead of a warden, Linda London is the director.

Bridge City, in short, is the promise of a sea change in Louisiana juvenile justice, said Mary Livers, who a year ago became the Office of Juvenile Justice deputy secretary, inheriting a system only five years into transition from confinement to treatment, and an eventual end to sending juveniles hundreds of miles away from home.

Kristi Spinosa of the Louisiana District Attorney Association, Ralph E. Brandt Jr. of the Orleans Parish district attorney's office and Joe Waitz Jr., Terrebonne Parish district attorney, listen to residents of Harmony dormitory during a tour of the Bridge City Center for Youth.

Bridge City is one of three state "secure care" centers for juveniles; the others are the Swanson center in Monroe, where more than 200 juveniles are held, and the Jetson facility outside Baton Rouge that is home to about 80 youngsters. All three are for boys only; girls are sent to the Ware Youth Center in Coushatta and only the Monroe facility has not fully adopted the "Missouri model,'' named after the state that 17 years ago changed from prisons to treatment centers for juveniles.

Five years ago, Louisiana accepted "the Missouri model,'' sought after across the nation as the answer to juvenile rehabilitation, and began using a therapy method of treating juveniles as troubled children, as the state code demands, rather than as miniature adult convicts held behind the same brand of razor wire and cell bars.

"We're trying to lower their risk so they can return to the community and be not-at-risk to the community and for the rest of their lives," Livers said Tuesday before leading a small group of prosecutors and legislators on a tour of the grounds and dorms at the Bridge City.

"I'd like to shut down all of the buildings that have cells," Livers said, referring to the juvenile lockup in Monroe. "We will shutter them. In the last year, we are not locking kids up and leaving them in private cells."

At the behest of a federal court's oversight, Louisiana's youth centers now have fewer than 500 juveniles under 24-hour care instead of 2,000. Most come from New Orleans, and then from Lafayette or Shreveport. Forty percent have been diagnosed with severe mental illness.

Susan Poag/The Times-Picayune 'I'd like to shut down all of the buildings that have cells,' said Mary Livers, left, Office of Juvenile Justice deputy secretary.

Mark Stewart, who helped change Missouri's juvenile system decades ago and is helping usher Louisiana from prison-model to treatment-model, said, "The juvenile system is broken in this country. It's horrible and the results are horrible. We started here five years ago but retreated after Katrina. We're just coming back into place."

Louisiana's juvenile prisons were way too large and way too far away from where the kids were from, Stewart said: "They were gulags; horrible." And until 2004, when Kathleen Blanco became governor, the juvenile system was a part of the adult corrections department.

The cost of the therapeutic model is $60,000 per juvenile per year, but Stewart and Livers said research shows that juveniles can be rehabilitated at higher and more permanent rates than adults.

At Bridge City, boys ages 10 to 20 serve a minimum of six-month terms given to them by judges across the state. They live in dormitories, recently renamed from the likes of Bacchus, Zulu, Rex and Zawandi to recovery code words such as Serenity, Hope, Pride and Dignity.

About 2 1/2 years ago, the Bridge City center, a former convent at the foot of the Mississippi River levee in Jefferson Parish and the shadow of the Huey P. Long Bridge, opened several newly built dorms that resemble suburban homes, with pitched ceilings and living room-type furniture, next to 14 twin beds.

The average age of juveniles here is 16, and residents wear khaki pants and black sweatshirts over collared shirts.

Everyone goes to school and those with GEDs may enroll in culinary arts or other vocational training. Team sports, Bible study and "conflict resolution" fill the days, along with "restorative justice" projects that include visiting a war veterans' home in St. Charles Parish, where the juveniles serve lunches and talk with the former soldiers.

"Some of our kids are parents, so we have parenting classes," said Emily Williams, the group leader at the Harmony dorm, where on Tuesday, most of the 14 residents were from New Orleans and they included 19-year-old Jeremiah, a father of two who has spent two years at Bridge City, where his sons, ages 2 and 3, have visited him.

"I've got about 13 months left," Jeremiah said. "I've got a court date in June."

Tyrone, 16, said he has two months left on his sentence. "I want to go back home and go to school," he said. "I'm working the program."

Even the state juvenile systems most constant critics approve of Bridge City and the Missouri-based therapeutic approach, which is credited by its architects with a 90 percent success rate, meaning that 90 percent of juveniles never return to any prison either as a youth or adult.

"Bridge City is definitely the model for the rest of Louisiana," said Dana Kaplan, director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, an advocacy group that monitors conditions in juvenile detention. "We recognize there has been great progress, particularly for nonviolent offenses. We have absolutely seen some improvement in particular at Bridge City. Where we are most lacking still is there hasn't necessarily been full investment into community-based programs that we need. Budget cuts have hindered good programs we have had on the ground. The question becomes how do we really actualize reform?"

The days of adult-type of confinement aren't over in Louisiana, Kaplan said.

"Maybe at Bridge City," she said. "Not statewide."