The topic of juvenile delinquency, justice and reform have been debated by our Congress and by Louisiana lawmakers in recent and past years, but with the recent crime wave involving juveniles and teenagers, one must ask ‘when did good kids turn bad?’
“Kids are the ones we have to work on the most,” said Burton Guidry, a practicing attorney for more than 30 years. “If there’s no local facility, they end up in a regular facility and on the road to Angola.”
Guidry has been a practicing attorney since 1980 as a trial lawyer in both civil and criminal cases and has worked under a number of capacities in both State and Federal proceedings over his 30-plus year career. Recently, Guidry has been confronted with the juvenile justice system as the State-appointed attorney for an Abbeville juvenile who is being tried for second-degree murder.
Guidry said juvenile justice has been a hot political item for many years for several reasons. He said juveniles in Louisiana are treated as convicts from the moment they’re arrested and currently do not receive the right to a jury trial. The right to a fair trial is in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights as the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right “to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed.”
Soon after Guidry became the council for a Vermilion Parish juvenile, he learned that in order to meet with his client, which is not only a requirement but a right, he would have to travel some 80 miles to see his client in St. James Parish because there are no facilities that house juveniles in Vermilion Parish.
“I am amazed and appalled that we have no juvenile holding facility available to youthful offenders in our parish,” Guidry said. “My client has apparently been shipped off to a far-off parish without any notice and is not available to his family or lawyer for consultation or advice.
“It would seem that the powers that be would be keenly aware that our economic and cultural health is directly related to that of our children,” he continued. “The lack of a rehabilitation facility for youthful offenders and the treatment of the ills of our young society seems to be something (worth fighting for).”
Guidry said he thinks the way juveniles are treated within the system only leads to more adults being incarcerated and committing crimes, which has recently received major media attention.
Juveniles in the criminal justice system
The Associated Press recently reported that one out of every 55 adults is behind bars in Louisiana, a higher incarceration rate than any other state, and Louisiana’s incarceration rate increased by 272 percent since 1982. The statistics are still out for juveniles in Louisiana, but recent headlines seem to suggest that both crime rates and severity of crimes involving juveniles is on the rise.
“If you look at the entire country, juvenile crime and adjudication went away from the old truancy philosophy to steer people away from committing offenses. Now we treat 13 year olds the same way as someone heading to Angola,” Guidry said.
“The Louisiana Legislature recently passed statutes that say you can use a juvenile conviction when convincing a judge that the person is a repeat offender when tried as an adult,” he added.
Juveniles who have not yet received a trial are sent to the same facilities as criminals who have already been convicted of their crimes. Guidry said end up in penitentiaries like Angola when they are adults. He said some that are tried as adults can face life without parole or even the death penalty if convicted of certain offenses.
No help for troubled teens?
Guidry is not the only one who said he thinks there are not enough resources available for juveniles in Vermilion Parish.
“Jail is not the answer, but there aren’t enough programs (here),” said Deryl Veazey, LAC, AADC, who is a veteran drug addiction counselor at the Behavioral Medicine Clinic, as well as a recovering addict.
Veazey said he thinks the reason so many young people get into trouble is because there is no adult supervision, and because technology gives them instant access to drugs and alcohol, which can lead to addiction and crime.
“More young people are doing harder drugs, which leads to more crime,” he said. “Things are a lot easier to come by now days,” he added.
Veazey said the Federal Government stopped the Medicaid substance abuse program in the ‘90s and things have only gotten worse since. He estimates that some 70 percent of adults serving jail time were paying for crimes connected to drugs or alcohol.
“Reagan started the slogan ‘Just Say No,’ but it goes beyond that.” Veazey said that unless parents teach their children by demonstrating what is right and wrong, juveniles will continue to use drugs and alcohol and some will commit crimes.
Addiction leads to crime
Veazey has been working with adult addicts in Vermilion and Lafayette Parish for 18 years, and is a recovering addict himself. He said people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol only have a five percent chance of controlling the disease with treatment. Without it, it is virtually impossible.
“There’s no help in Vermilion Parish,” Veazey said. “No drug court. No DWI assistance programs to help people get into the treatment phase.”
So, if help is the solution, why isn’t there help in Vermilion Parish? Veazey said help must come from governments, and a lot of times funding is a big issue.
“It’s gonna have to come through government and in the community, through the mayors and the police jury,” Veazey said. “They should look to research that has already been done and programs in other states and implement them.”
Some Hope for Help
Without the help of professional programs within the parish, what can be done to help guide teens in the right direction?
“Discussing drugs with a 12 year old shouldn’t be normal, but it is,” said Abbeville Chief of Police Rick Coleman, who has seen juvenile crime increase for the last 20 years.
“It starts at home,” Coleman said. “When we sacrifice our kids to keep up with the Jones’, that’s when trouble starts to happen.” Chief Coleman said when children receive little or no supervision, the communication between parent and child is lost. “When we’ve destroyed the home, we’ve destroyed who we are.”
Although there are programs in other parishes, there are very few prevention programs for troubled youth in Vermilion Parish, but there is help available.
Desiree Hebert is the Families In Need of Services (FINS) coordinator for Acadia and Vermilion Parish. Hebert’s personal goal is to help troubled teens through providing access to counseling, mentoring and education programs to help kids stay in school and learn how to manage peer pressure, anger management, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as dealing with family issues.
“Sometimes there isn’t help, which can be frustrating,” Hebert admits. But the FINS program, Hebert said, “gives juveniles an outlet to answers on what they can do. Some kids complete the program and do great things. A lot of times, because (FINS) is in a courtroom setting, they realize this is not where they want to be and therefore do not want to come back,” Hebert said.
The FINS program became effective through the Louisiana Supreme Court legislation, as Title VII of the Louisiana Children’s Code, which is “designed to permit the juvenile court to return to its original role of coordinating community resources to assist and reinforce the family in an effort to prevent delinquency.”
Hebert said the program works mostly with juvenile first-time offenders aged 5 to 17, who are required by the District Attorney’s Office to comply with their signed contracts, or face charges or recommendations imposed by a judge. Hebert said her program does not guarantee that the juvenile will not commit additional crimes, and admitted some do end up in the criminal system even if they complete the program successfully.
“There are some that might not want the help,” she said, “but some never got help and they do,” she said. Hebert sometimes refers older boys who are behind in school to the Youth Challenge Program, put on by the National Guard, which she said has an 89 percent success rate.
“Those that realize that they got into a situation and they want to get out are very successful in the challenge program,” she said. Graduates of the program also have the opportunity to take the GED test and receive their high school diploma.
Hebert said parents are required to cooperate in the program, and to comply with the contracts they sign at the beginning. Although most of her clients are required to participate or face criminal charges, Hebert said parents can volunteer their children to participate if they think their child needs help. Those interested should contact their child’s school counselor, or call the District Attorney’s Office.