‘Raise the Age’ law tries 17-year-olds as juveniles

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Paul Braun, LSU Manship School News Service

A House committee advanced a bill Tuesday that would delay the implementation of the “Raise the Age” law requiring 17-year-olds to be prosecuted as juveniles instead of adults. Plans for the change had passed the Legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2016 and were set to take effect July 1. But concerns have arisen about the financial impact since it costs more to house people in juvenile facilities, which are focused on rehabilitation, than in adult jails.

The new bill, sponsored by Ronnie Johns, R- Lake Charles, would push back the start date for the change to March 1, 2019 for nonviolent 17-year-old offenders and March 1, 2020 for 17-year-old violent offenders. It passed unanimously in the Senate last week.

The House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee advanced the bill to the House floor in an 8-3 vote. A previous version of the legislation was heavily criticized for including language that would have allowed for further delay if adequate funding remained unavailable. That language was dropped, but financial concerns remain a key issue. Guy Cormier, assistant director of the Louisiana Police Jury Association, said that adopting the reforms this year would place a serious burden on police juries and parish governments. He said that it cost $275 a day to house a single offender at a juvenile correctional facility. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said his group had been involved in setting the original start dates. But, he said, additional funding cuts to the Office of Juvenile Justice have made it impossible to meet those deadlines.

Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, objected to any delay that would keep children in adult prisons longer. Marcelle was one of the three committee members to vote against the bill. The other two were Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier, and Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans. Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, presented the bill to the committee on behalf of Johns even though he had initially opposed it. He said the financial triggers included in the original bill were “beyond problematic” and that he remained hesitant about imposing any delay.

Morrell wrote the 2016 “Raise the Age” legislation, and he said Tuesday that everyone knew then that “it was going to be a very difficult transition. Whenever you have something of that magnitude, it changes the entire way we prosecute and deal with kids.” Prosecuting 17-year-olds as juveniles “still is the right thing to do,” he added. “But when you are trying to reconcile what it right and what you can do, there is not a good answer.”