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Disagreement over housing 17-year-old offenders creates confusion as new law looms

1 month 1 week 4 days ago Wednesday, April 17 2024 Apr 17, 2024 April 17, 2024 5:16 PM April 17, 2024 in News
Source: WBRZ

BATON ROUGE - A law going into effect Friday has put city-parish officials and the sheriff's office at odds on how to house 17-year-old criminal suspects.

City-parish wants 17-year-olds transferred from the Juvenile Detention Center to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison when state law dictates that they can be. That's Friday. The sheriff's office says federal rules make it impossible to house 17-year-olds in an adult jail without upgrades that city-parish would have to fund.

As of Thursday, seven 17-year-olds were at the Juvenile Detention Center.

After meetings to discuss next steps, the mayor and the sheriff exchanged letters setting out each agency's stance on the question.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a law returning 17-year-olds to adult status for purposes of criminal prosecution. It had been changed in 2016 under Governor John Bel Edwards. 

East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux sent a letter Wednesday to Metro Council members and Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome saying moving 17-year-olds into the parish prison as it is right now would violate the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a 2003 federal law. 

To reduce rapes of children in adult jails, PREA says "no inmate under 18 may be placed in a housing unit where contact will occur with adult inmates in a shared dayroom or other common space, shower area or sleeping quarters." 

Research had indicated that juveniles are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult rather than juvenile facilities—often within the first 48 hours of incarceration.  

"This national PREA standard demands facility requirements that the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison does not have," Gautreaux stated in the letter. "The facility design of the Parish Prison does not provide a secure area that meets the PREA requirements."

Gautreaux explained that other work at the jail also needs attention.

"Currently, the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison has significant structural deficiencies which include problems with plumbing that have resulted in flooding, broken toilets, and showers; physical deterioration including rusted and broken doors, windows, and bars; daily inability to control the temperature of air and water; and large portions of the facility are closed due to the extreme level of deterioration," he said.

The Sheriff ended his letter by saying that the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison cannot house 17-year-old offenders, putting the process at a standstill until significant upgrades — made with city-parish dollars — can be made. 

Broome responded said the sheriff must comply, and by Friday.

She said a short list of fixes will be made to house the youthful offenders in the parish prison by the end of the week.

"Our Buildings and Grounds team and Warden [Cathy] Fontenot had agreed on a punch list and arrangements for this specific unit within the adult prison so that together here in East Baton Rouge Parish we will be ready to house those 17-year-old juveniles who are currently being tried as adults," Broome's letter said. 

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