By Molly Ryan and Jenna Bridges
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE–The House Appropriations Committee discussed Tuesday (April 11) expanding the budgets for youth, corrections and public safety services as state officials expressed a need to address employee turnover rates through higher salaries.
Corrections Department Secretary James LeBlanc underscored the stressful, difficult work his staff does and noted that shots have recently been fired at probation officers.
Col. Lamar Davis, superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, said Louisiana is short 166 state troopers. He believes the state needs to make trooper salaries more competitive, citing that Louisiana’s starting pay for troopers is lower than in neighboring states like Mississippi.
“We have some very good, very smart people out there with good hearts, but we have to pay them,” he said.
Curtis Nelson, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice, said his officials have also struggled with employee turnover rates, especially for those on the front lines who are in constant contact with juveniles and work 12-hour shifts.
He said his office addressed this issue by incentivizing the work with better pay. Individuals only need a high school diploma to work for youth services, and after 18 months, the office can bump their pay from around $30,000 to $45,000, which Nelson felt is competitive for people without a college degree.
LeBlanc said the corrections department also has increased pay and said it has seen success at job fairs. According to LeBlanc, there have been improvements in employment rates at every one of its facilities except for the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center and the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
The state has a $1.6 billion surplus this year, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seemed receptive to officials’ requests for extra funding.
In addition to employee retention, Nelson emphasized a need to fund positions that would catch troubling juvenile behavior at early stages and before crimes were committed.
He said youth services in the state are overwhelmed and suggested funneling more money to reduce truancy. He said absence from school is a sign of trouble at home that increases the risk for juvenile detention.
Additionally, Nelson said juveniles in some jurisdictions have been moved to facilities outside of Louisiana due to a lack of space. He said those youth offenders are consequently unable to reap the maximum benefits of the Office of Juvenile Justice’s programs.
“It is important to remember that the role of OJJ is to deliver rehabilitation,” he said.
Nelson said there are about 50 youth offenders waiting to be put into a secure care facility, but there is no room to house them.
To be sure, the state’s public safety department appears to be in peril. Issues surrounding safety, training, conditions and resources at state adult and juvenile facilities have received heightened scrutiny over the past several months in the wake of the transfer of some youth offenders from the Bridge City Youth Center to Angola.
Last summer, a lawsuit was filed to attempt to block the move, but to no avail. Advocates for youth across Louisiana continue to appeal the move. And most recently, some of the juvenile youth now detained at Angola have added reports of alleged mistreatment at the state’s largest and most notorious adult state prison to the legal action to reverse the move.
“We’ve got a real problem, and I think everyone in this room can agree with that, where the youth are going these days,” Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, said.
Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Jefferson, said the best way to address juvenile crime is to identify at-risk individuals, including those who are physically abused or have family members in jail.
She expressed frustration about repeatedly hearing about the same problems. “I just know we’re going to have the same conversation next year,” she said.
Villio proposed a working relationship with organizations like the Department of Child and Family Services to prevent criminal behavior.
Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Ascension, suggested turning an adult facility into a juvenile facility or leasing new space for juvenile offenders.
While a new high-security facility for youth offenders is being built now, Bacala said the urgency of this issue means it needs to be dealt with quickly.
New Orleans Tribune staff contributed to this report.