Editorial: Lafayette’s Juvenile Assessment Center a better approach to juvenile justice


The Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Department has shown a great deal of initiative and foresight in establishing the Juvenile Assessment Center at its Poydras Street office. If this new method of processing juvenile offenders lives up to expectations, it could help salvage young lives, lower the crime rate in the parish and ultimately save taxpayer dollars.

The idea is to target young people who have committed less serious crimes and give them the help and guidance they need to avoid the pitfalls that could lead them to become career criminals.

That seems a more enlightened approach than simple incarceration.

Before the center opened, all juvenile offenders, whether they were arrested for truancy or attempted murder, were treated the same. They were charged with a crime, then sent to the juvenile detention center or released to their parents, said Capt. Kip Judice of the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office. He added there was no centralized way of keeping track of young offenders in the parish — they all entered the system in the municipality where they were arrested.

Now, all juvenile offenders, regardless of what law enforcement agency arrested them, are sent to the Juvenile Assessment Center. There, their problems and needs are assessed by a juvenile deputy specialist, a mental health professional and a representative of the school system. All this is made possible through partnerships the sheriff’s office has forged with agencies and organizations in the parish.

Those who have committed more serious crimes will be booked, just as they were before.

But those who have committed lesser crimes may be eligible for individualized intervention outside the criminal justice system.

In those cases, the team of professionals will recommend appropriate “avenues” tailored to the child’s needs, Judice said.

Some may need counseling. Some may need extra help with school work or workforce training. Some may be disruptive in school and may be referred to an “alternative school,” such as N.P. Moss.

In other cases, Judice said, the problem is not so much with the child as it is with the parents. In those cases, the adults receive counseling to improve their parenting skills.

Sometimes, all that is needed is a behavior contract negotiated by a professional between parent and child. If the contract is violated, the young offender is then booked and enters the criminal justice system.

It’s good that the program has consequences built in for kids.

The center and its program is modeled after similar programs in Calcasieu and Jefferson parishes, Judice said.

In Calcasieu Parish, he said, citizens passed a millage to support their program. In Lafayette Parish, the participating partners have each put up some of the money to run the center.

There is the hope that in time the program will be self-sustaining, using money that was saved by not having to house and feed as many juvenile offenders.

That would be the best of all worlds.

Since the center opened in August, Judice said 274 juveniles have been arrested. Of those, 70 percent have completed the program and continue to honor it; 10 percent have been re-arrested and 19 percent did not go through the Juvenile Assessment Center.

Unfortunately, there’s a gap in the program. The JAC is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., so kids who are arrested outside those times must be booked into the juvenile justice system the traditional way.

Having the center stay open 24 hours a day would be ideal, but Judice said funding is not adequate at this time to do that.

It will take at least five years of records-keeping to get a real sense of the program’s effectiveness. Laws that protect juveniles’ privacy also present an impediment to comparing results.

It may be true that this approach is as yet unproven, but the preliminary numbers look promising.

We hope the program has a chance to prove itself and that funding will somehow be made available to keep the center open 24 hours a day.

There are young people in the criminal justice system who need to be there. But there are others who just need another chance.

The Juvenile Assessment Center just may be the tool that will give them that second chance.