After flurry of WBRZ reports highlighting problems at state's juvenile jails, OJJ head resigns
BATON ROUGE - After a series of breakouts, riots and other problems at Louisiana's packed juvenile detention centers, the head of the Office of Juvenile Justice has resigned.
The WBRZ Investigative Unit and Chief Investigator Chris Nakamoto have highlighted those issues for more than a year.
Deputy Secretary Bill Sommers dodged questions for months about the troubling number of breakouts and disturbances at those jails. After Sommers repeatedly refused and canceled interviews, Nakamoto went looking for him outside the state office where he worked back in February.
"I'm responsible, Chris," Sommers said at the time. "I'm 100 percent responsible for [what's going on with the escapes]."
Then, OJJ was dealing with a series of repeated breakouts and other problems which have largely persisted throughout 2022. The problems got so bad that the state formulated a controversial plan to relocate some of its most violent juvenile inmates to a specialized juveniles-only wing at the Angola state prison.
Sommers was first appointed as the head of the agency in 2020.
Read the full statement from the governor's office below.
Today, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that he has accepted the resignation of Deputy Secretary for Youth Services William Sommers, who has led the agency since 2020. Before joining OJJ, Sommers spent more than 30 years at the Calcasieu Parish Office of Juvenile Justice and worked in law enforcement in Southwest Louisiana. Curtis Nelson has been named acting deputy secretary.
“I am grateful to Bill for his service to our state,” said Gov. Edwards. “He joined us during one of the most difficult periods in Louisiana’s history, leading OJJ through the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating natural disasters. Bill has also worked diligently to address the recent challenges within OJJ. Juvenile Justice work is challenging in the best of times, and OJJ’s work was made even harder by the pandemic. At the same time we were seeing increases in young people entering the juvenile justice system, there were unprecedented challenges in hiring and retaining of staff for juvenile justice agencies across the country. These challenges have contributed to several unfortunate incidents in Louisiana. Bill spent the majority of his career working with troubled youth and supporting their successful rehabilitation. It is Bill’s passion and he has been devoted to public service, often at great personal sacrifice to himself and his family. Now, after nearly 36 years of service, I know Bill is looking forward to spending some well-deserved time with his wife, children and grandchildren. I wish him the best.”
Gov. Edwards has named OJJ Assistant Secretary Otha “Curtis” Nelson as interim deputy secretary. Nelson joined the agency earlier this year after serving as deputy judicial administrator for the Louisiana Supreme Court Division of Children and Families. He has more than 30 years of knowledge and experience working with children and families including as an adolescent mental health technician in mental health settings, a court appointed special advocate, a family attorney for children in need of care and delinquency proceedings, and juvenile prosecutor for the 19th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
“Curtis has decades of experience helping troubled youth and their families,” said Gov. Edwards. “He understands the issues and challenges facing our juvenile system, and I’m confident in his leadership and ability to help us address the problems within OJJ and make improvements.”
“I am thankful to Gov. Edwards for the opportunity to continue to work for the Office of Juvenile Justice in this new role,” said Nelson. “William Sommers is a friend and colleague who has done so much great work in the juvenile justice system over the last thirty plus years. In the two years Mr. Sommers was with OJJ, he was able to lay a foundation that will allow the Office of Juvenile Justice to continue to make positive changes in the lives of our system-involved youth. We all thank him for his hard work.”