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Judges and prosecutors fear juvenile justice system could collapse

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BATON ROUGE- Beginning in July, the juvenile court system in Baton Rouge is expecting to see a massive influx of the cases it typically handles.

That's because the state will begin prosecuting teens who commit crimes as juveniles if they are 17. Currently, 16-year-olds are prosecuted as a juvenile. All of this stems from a state law that was passed in 2016 and is set to take effect in four months.

Tonight, at least one juvenile judge fears the community's safety could be at risk and prosecutors fear it will create such a burden on the system they say is already failing.

"I don't place juveniles in the detention center unless I feel like they are a threat to the community," Juvenile Judge Adam Haney said. "I'm not interested in ordering them released because we don't have enough beds."

Many of the cases Haney sees, he can't talk about due to the ages of those in court. Sometimes, he sees the worst of the worst. Beginning in July, judges like Haney will have to decide which dangerous juveniles stay in the detention center and which ones get to go.

"Our detention center is over capacity, every day," Haney said. "So that means we will have to make a decision as to who is going to be released to the community because we can't house them."

The WBRZ Investigative Unit found the age change would affect a recent case we reported on. In 2012, Jerrid Davis and Keymah Hills, both 17, were arrested after a murder on Mclelland Drive. They were charged with conspiracy. The case went on in adult court for almost three years before the charges were dismissed. But, under a new law, Davis and Hills would have never even made it to adult court. Their cases would have stayed in juvenile court.

"It's going to make our jobs more difficult, and is going to make it difficult to ensure the public is safe," Haney said. "That's our first priority, public safety. We will be stretching everyone thin."

The "raise the age" law would take effect in phases, part of it in July of this year. For all other crimes, it will take effect in January 2020.  District Attorney Hillar Moore says there's a measure going through the capitol now to slow that down due to the burden it would create on the existing system.

"It will overburden a system that is already strained," Moore said. "[The crimes] vary from the smallest misdemeanor from disturbing the peace to first-degree murder. So you're looking at a wide variety of everything."

At the time the "raise the age" measure was signed into law, Louisiana joined 41 other states in the nation already prosecuting 17-year-olds as juveniles. But, the difference according to judges and prosecutors is those states added money, resources, and programs to help the influx of cases they saw. They say that has not happened in Louisiana.

"What did we do to change our system?" Moore said. "The answer is nothing. We want to keep up with other states that are progressive and change the age, which we did."

"There's a recognition among everyone that we are going to be worse off if we don't do this the right way," Haney said. "I think people's eyes are open to the fact that at this point, it's going to be difficult to do it the right way, not that we can't do it the right way, but it's going to be difficult."

Despite prosecutors and judges said it will cost more money to process, the state says it will save approximately 58 million dollars through lower incarceration rates.

Meanwhile, Moore says depending on the crimes, some cases may still be able to be tried in adult court. However, it will depend on the circumstances and the rulings of the court.

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