The following report from The Center Square indicates the state juvenile justice system has problems at facilities statewide. Recently the Ware Youth Center north of Coushatta has been in the news amid allegations of mistreatment of youth housed there. See earlier items published by The Parish Journals.
(The Center Square) – Louisiana’s deputy secretary of youth services has resigned amid struggles with violence and other issues at facilities across the state that youth justice reform advocates have blamed on a lack of funding.
Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the Friday resignation of Deputy Secretary for Youth Services William Sommers, who will be replaced by Office of Juvenile Justice Assistant Secretary Ortha “Curtis” Nelson.
“I am grateful to Bill for his service to our state,” Edwards said. “He joined us during one of the most difficult periods in Louisiana’s history, leading OJJ through the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating natural disasters. Bill has also worked diligently to address the recent challenges within OJJ.”
Editor’s note: Governor Edwards has ordered a state investigation into allegations included in the New York Times investigative article. Details of that investigation have not been made public.
Sommers, who has led the agency since 2020, departs amid intense scrutiny of the state’s juvenile justice system, which faced multiple escapes and violent clashes at several facilities this summer. The problems prompted a plan to transfer some high-risk youth to the state’s infamous Angola State Penitentiary, an effort headed by Nelson.
Sommers’ resignation comes just days after he penned a letter with Nelson to state judges last week pleading for help to release some youth from OJJ facilities that are now at capacity.
“In the coming days, OJJ legal division will start filing motions to modify pursuant to LSA – CH. C. Article 898 (B) seeking your approval to modify the dispositions of the use at the agency believe can be safely reintegrated back into the community,” the letter read. “We are seeking the consideration to grant these motions as there are no other ways to remove youth from the local detention centers pending placement unless we, for safely, release those youth who qualify for community-based rehabilitation services.”
The request stemmed in part from youth destroying facilities, but Sommers also highlighted the agency’s struggles with staffing, noting in a March budget hearing that the position of an entry juvenile justice specialist has a turnover rate of 298%.
“We’re faced with a critical staff shortage, the scope of which was never anticipated or imagined,” Sommers said at the time.
Somers recommended changes in facility designs, attracting more hires to fill vacancies, and recruiting a more diverse staff, and he asked lawmakers for additional funding to make it happen. Edwards, the governor, requested a $9 million increase in the OJJ’s $150 million budget this year, which lawmakers obliged.
The OJJ budget peaked at $182.5 million in 2008-09, then faced steep cuts until it bottomed out at $111.3 million by 2013-14. The OJJ budget has slowly rebounded since to $150.3 million in 2021-22.
Many of the issues plaguing OJJ predated Sommers’ tenure, and they’ve contributed to the years-long controversy over how the state approaches juvenile justice. Louisiana officials have for years promised to have a more rehabilitative model for dealing with troubled youth, and Gina Womack, director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, told The Advocate that Sommers’ departure is an opportunity to follow through with creating a gentler system.
“We are not surprised that Sommers has resigned, as the entire youth justice system is a sinking ship in Louisiana and is rife with failure,” she said. “We hope this is an opportunity for the state to shift its approach from a punitive system towards its overdue promise of a therapeutic model, and that shift starts with its leadership.”
Edwards praised Nelson for his dedication to the youth justice system throughout his 30-year career and expressed confidence he’s the right pick to lead the troubled agency moving forward.
“Curtis has decades of experience helping troubled youth and their families,” Edwards said. “He understands the issues and challenges facing our juvenile system, and I’m confident in his leadership and ability to help us address the problems within OJJ and make improvements.”