Covering Louisiana

Feb 20, 2014 5:56 PM by AP

Juvenile justice leader defends Jetson closure

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The head of Louisiana's Office of Juvenile Justice apologized Thursday for upsetting people by abruptly closing the youth prison near Baton Rouge and moving its inmates in the middle of the night.

But Mary Livers, deputy secretary of OJJ, told an oversight commission that she stands by the decision to shutter the Jetson Center for Youth in Baker and the manner in which she did it - without advance notice for offenders, their parents or employees.

She said the youth prisons in the Monroe and New Orleans areas were better suited for rehabilitative care and treatment, and the secretive procedure for reassigning the 76 inmates to those facilities was designed for safety.

"We understood that this would be shocking and this would be upsetting, but we made that decision because we felt like it was the right decision to meet our mission," Livers said. "And so, for all those who are hurt by it, I apologize. For all those whose lives have been turned upside down, I apologize for that. However, the mission has to come first."

Members of a state commission that monitors the juvenile justice system said they were uncomfortable with how the Jetson closure was handled and its male teenage offenders were moved.

"It seemed like someone was accosted and taken in the middle of the night," said Tracie Woods, a lawyer and representative of the Southern University System on the commission.

Panel members called the closure disruptive for the parents of those who were in the facility and for Jetson workers who learned their jobs were ending only as they were assisting with the shutdown.

"The Jetson center transfer caused concern among a broad segment of the community, from us as policymakers and legislators to people in the community to the staff that worked there and others," said Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, chairwoman of the commission.

Jetson closed in January, with 14 of its offenders moving to Bridge City Center for Youth near New Orleans. The rest were sent to the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe and its satellite facility 30 miles away in Columbia.

Livers said the youth prison built in 1948 was obsolete - its too-large campus difficult to operate and secure. She also said it didn't work with the therapeutic model focused on counseling that the state now uses for youth offenders.

The juvenile justice secretary tried to assure the commission that Jetson workers were being helped to find other employment and that parents were being offered assistance to visit children who were moved to secure facilities as much as three-and-a-half hours away.

"Everyone concerned should have been notified that this is what we're thinking about doing," said Alonzo Jones, a recreation therapist at Jetson before it closed. "It was a traumatic experience for those kids."

Jetson had 154 employees. Livers said 63 have taken new jobs at juvenile justice facilities in other parts of the state so far. She also said OJJ is offering transportation twice a month from Baton Rouge to the Swanson facility to help people visit their family members.

"We are going the extra mile, both literally and figuratively, to make sure that families stay connected," she said.

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