Recent teens escape triggers conversation to revert 17 year olds from juvenile to adult status

BATON ROUGE — It’s been four days since two 17 year olds accused of murder, escaped the East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Detention Center and have yet to be found. It was the second escape in less than two weeks for one of the teens.

The fact that a 17-year-old facing first-degree murder escaped twice in a 10-day period, has garnered national attention. It’s also brought the age of a juvenile to the forefront for leaders in Louisiana.

Recent Escapes

David Atkins & Willie Jackson, both 17, escaped from the EBR juvenile detention center around 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 25 thanks to a faulty door. Atkins had just been captured on Nov. 15 after he and a different teenager, Jeremiah Green, escaped on Nov. 14 from the same facility.

Both were caught within 24 hours of the Nov. 14 escape. Now though, Atkins and Jackson remain on the run and Crime Stoppers is offering a reward up to $2,000 per escapee for information leading to their capture.

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Where do arrested juveniles go?

In July 2022, at least 14 teenagers from Louisiana were kicked out of an Alabama jail following a riot they’re accused of starting. That’s after Louisiana was paying $400/day per juvenile to house them.

Over the last few years, local parishes have been sending juveniles to facilities in other states because there are no facilities in Louisiana to take them.

“There’s no place for me to house the juveniles in my parish,” said West Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Tony Clayton. “East Baton Rouge has one, and they refuse to take our children. I’m relegated to sending the kids to other states, Mississippi and Alabama.”

Clayton said a facility in Natchez, Mississippi, is currently housing West Baton Rouge juveniles. He said it costs $250 per day to accommodate them.

“The bill for West Baton Rouge Parish is upwards of $100,000, sometimes more per month just to house juveniles until they’re adjudicated to be post-adjudicated. It’s ridiculous,” said Clayton.

The issue grew to the point that 25 youths were transported to a facility in Angola earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Detention Center is so often dealing with faulty parts to their 70-yr plus building so despite being able to accommodate 52 children, it usually holds up to 35.

Jacqueline Nash Grant is a Southern University Clinical Law Professor who works with children daily at the EBR juvenile detention center.

“EBR Parish Juvenile Detention Center is a joke. If you go to Shreveport, New Orleans, or Lake Charles, they have what we call “palaces.” They have facilities to help the families. It’s really embarrassing. The building in Shreveport was built 40 years ago and was in a better position than EBR now. Our building was built 70 years ago and is dilapidated. There is an entire wing that is leaking,” said Professor Nash Grant. ” When it rains, they have to cancel court because the parking lot floods. The building state and the under-education of the staff are parts of the reasons for escapes of juveniles. But all of this takes money to fix. Nobody wants to raise the taxes in the City/Parish. People want to talk about the crimes committed by the children, but they don’t want to put their money where their mouth is.”

Clayton is a part of Louisiana Governor-Elect Jeff Landry’s transition team. He too said part of the problem at the EBR juvenile facility is due to staffing. He said 60 percent of guards at juvenile facilities in Louisiana are women and that the youth inmates treat them harshly.

“Males have a tendency to fight back and will fight back,” Clayton said. “The men won’t be demeaned to $10 to $15 an hour to have some kid throw feces and urine and spit on them without retaliating. Our female guards are in a situation where they’re not properly trained. These kids are breaking out. I told some folks the other day that OJJ stands for ‘Oh, it’s just a joke.’ In my mind, the way they operate the facilities is just a joke. The kids are just completely out of control.”

One suggestion Clayton said he would make to lawmakers is to move all female prisoners from local parishes to the Jetson Correctional Facility in Baker. That would free up space in the local parishes to house juveniles.

Why 17 should be considered a child, not an adult

In June 2016, the Louisiana Legislature passed SB 324 into law. Prior to the law, a 17-year-old was considered an adult and held in adult prison. After SB 324 passed, a 17-year-old is now considered to be a juvenile and must be housed at a juvenile detention center. The law only applies to non-violent crimes. Those who are seventeen and commit violent crimes such as murder or rape, may still be tried as adults depending on the local district attorney’s decision.

The ammunition behind changing the law was to give 17-year-olds a chance at life instead of sentencing them off to prison for years at a time for a non-violent crime.

Jacqueline Nash Grant is the also the Clinical Law Professor of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Southern University Law Center. She has been practicing as an attorney in juvenile justice for 40 years.

“A 17-year-old is ill-equipped to deal with life issues. There is a lot of research about the neuroscience about juveniles. The part of the brain that pertains to judgement doesn’t develop until about 25 years old. It is a grave injustice to automatically try a 17-year-old as an adult because they don’t have the mental capacity to not act out on impulse,” said Professor Nash Grant. “Then they get thrown into the adult system, and the view for them changes. When a child, which a 17-year-old is definitely a child, is in the juvenile justice system, there is hope for redemption. We can make changes to help develop this child into a productive member of society. That is not the view of adult court. Adult court is to penalize. They go to correction centers, not youth centers. With little hope of redemption.”

Plus, Professor Nash Grant said the thought process of going to an adult prison versus a juvenile center makes a difference on how a child reacts.

“We don’t use the term ‘defendant.’. We call them ‘child’ or ‘youth.’ We don’t say they commit crimes. We say they commit ‘offensives’ in the juvenile system. We find them delinquent, not guilty and in need of service. A disposition is given, not a sentence,” said Professor Nash Grant. “Recidivism is the path when a 17-year-old is thrown into adult prison. They are vulnerable in adult prison thrown in with murderers, robbers, rapists, and other violent offenders. They become victims. They get raped and beat up because they are children.”  

She even gave an example of a recent teen who turned his life around because he was able to get the help he needed instead of being sentenced to time behind bars.

“We’ve had some kids turn it around. A young man was acting out committing crimes because his grandmother died. He bounced around from house to house. He needed grief counseling. His whole world was lost when his grandmother died,” she said.

Being on the front lines of working with arrested children, Professor Nash Grant says “It disproportionately impacts African-American males if 17-year-olds are tried as adults. It is a majority of African American males in the system. If it increases, we’d see an increase of African American males in the adult system.”  

In 2016, it was projected that around 6,000 seventeen year olds would be arrested with a vast majority of them being non-violent offenses. The goal was to give those children a chance at life beyond prison by deeming a 17-yr-old as a juvenile.

Talks to change 17 back to adult status

“That was the worst mistake Louisiana ever made,” said Clayton, speaking of when the state moved the age to 17. “When you put a 12-year-old in with a 17-year-old, that 17-year-old is virtually an adult, and he corrupts that 12 or 14-year-old and that’s the gist of the problem. That will help tremendously in thwarting juvenile crime. You put them in with the adults. You’ll see an immediate change.”

One piece of legislation Clayton said Landry is looking to bring to the table in January puts the age limit at 17 for offenders to serve time in adult prisons.

Clayton said 16 and 17-year-olds stay in a dormitory setting at the juvenile facilities, which he believes is an opportunity to form gangs.

“We’ve watched other states where they individualized the juveniles. They put them in individual cells where they can’t coalesce into these little gangs and overpower the staff,” he said. “That’s going to take money, but we have to do something.”

Sen. Regina Barrow, a member of the Black Caucus, said the caucus supported keeping the age at 17 when the topic came up. She said the group has yet to discuss Landry’s rumored proposal because nothing is official.

“Certainly, when the bill was passed, it was a measure that we did support as a group,” Barrow said. “I’m always cautious about answering questions when the language and everything is still very vague. We don’t know what it’s going to look like. We can’t put all the kids in one basket. One thing I have not heard, which I would like to see the data on, is the number of children who have been in the raise the age parameter and have gone on to do well. I think it’s premature to have a definitive answer without a definitive question.”

Barrow said one factor she believes is being overlooked is the juveniles’ mental health. She noted several instances (Hurricane Katrina, 2016 flood) and how the trauma from those events was not addressed in the youths.

Barrow echoed the facility in Baton Rouge that has seen six escapes in the last two years, is due for an upgrade.

“We build facilities all the time, but we don’t maintain them,” she said. “As a result, this is what we’re seeing, and we still have not addressed the issue. That building is old. That building needs to be renovated.”

“I had been looking at alternative facilities that can provide housing and programs, everything that is needed to rehabilitate children, and that idea was just shut down,” she continued. “We didn’t even get it off the ground well. We have to be more intentional about how we really want to help our younger generation and what that looks like and be willing to pay for it.”

Barrow doubled down on what Professor Nash Grant said. She said that science was one of the black caucus’s arguments for supporting keeping the juvenile age at 17.

“Science has proved that parts of a young person’s brain aren’t fully developed until they’re 25, affecting their decision-making. We talk about brain development and things that have happened,” she said. “We want to give them a real opportunity. We want to make sure they are getting the services and assistance they need so they can be prepared so that when they age out of juvenile services, they can do something better with their lives.”

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