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SPLC seeks immediate release of Louisiana boy held illegally without court hearing

The SPLC filed a petition today seeking the “immediate and unconditional release” of a 15-year-old boy who has been illegally held in a juvenile prison without a court hearing that is required under Louisiana law.

A Madison Parish judge committed the child to the secure custody of the Office of Juvenile Justice. The boy, who was charged with a simple burglary at 13, should have been brought back before a judge 11 months ago to determine whether he has made enough progress that he can be safely released, as state law requires.

A child incarcerated for a non-violent felony cannot be held legally for more than nine months unless the state proves – at a court hearing before a judge – that continued incarceration is needed to further that child’s rehabilitation.

“Detaining children longer than necessary is both expensive and ineffective,” said Jamila Johnson, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC. “Louisiana adopted a law to prevent this practice by ensuring regular hearings to evaluate progress for release. The process created by the law is good, but it simply isn’t being followed.” 

Louisiana law requires that young people who are convicted of low-level crimes receive frequent hearings to determine the progress of their rehabilitation and the effectiveness – or ineffectiveness – of continued incarceration. These legally required hearings help to ensure that children in the juvenile court system are released at the point when they have been rehabilitated and there is no public safety benefit to continued incarceration.

Such hearings are not uniformly held across the state for all children who are entitled to them, the court filing argues. Many children – like the 15-year-old in this case – are being deprived of their freedom, and their access to courts, based solely on whether the jurisdiction where they are prosecuted follows the law.

“The law is clear: The court must provide a hearing at which the state must prove our client’s continued detention is necessary, or he must be set free,” Johnson said. “His illegal detention is a glaring example of the failure of our justice system to comply with law put in place to protect our children.”

A bill that would ensure timely hearings for juvenile cases is advancing in the Louisiana Legislature. Senate Bill 106, sponsored by State Sen. Jean-Paul “JP” Morrell (D-New Orleans), would require that hearings be scheduled at the time each child is given a sentence, which would prevent young people from falling through the cracks.

The clarifying language in SB 106 is intended to ensure that no child is locked up longer than necessary. Research shows that long periods of incarceration for young people exacerbate recidivism and increase challenges to education and employment.

“SB 106 is a common-sense fix to a serious problem facing children in the juvenile justice system,” Johnson said.

SB 106 was approved by Louisiana Senate Judiciary Committee B last week, and has been placed on the full Senate’s calendar.

Photo Marianne Todd