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Juvenile Detention Reform Helping to Ease Overcrowding

In Shreveport, Louisiana, Caddo Juvenile Detention Center's small cell blocks are reserved mostly for teens charged with armed robbery, sex crimes and other violent felony offenses.

Despite a reported increase in younger, more violent criminals on the streets of Shreveport, the Caddo Juvenile Detention Center facility currently houses fewer juveniles per day than it has in years.

In Caddo Juvenile Detention Center, the daily occupancy dropped to nearly half of the average 45 to 50 children housed three years ago. Prior to 2007, juvenile officials struggled with overcrowding and young offenders making repeat visits.

But a reform aimed to cure the problem has proved successful. The average occupancy at the facility is 23 to 25 youths a day.

"Then we were running 45 kids in a 29-bed facility," said Edwin Scott, director Caddo's juvenile services department. "Detention should never be used for a scare tactic. It's to keep kids who are a threat to the community off the streets," he explains. "We had to rethink what we do with juvenile justice and how we do business. And from that we've done several things that made some big differences."

In 2006, Caddo partnered with the McArthur Foundation and its Models for Change program to provide tools and insight to assist officials in making processing and placement decisions for young offenders. Ideally, Models for Change reform tools help with decision-making in a manner that not only fosters rehabilitation through interventions, but also decreases risk for delinquency in the future.

At the same time, Models for Change's focus is to reduce the number of youths in secure care facilities. In doing so, Caddo implemented SAVRY, Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youths, to determine the level of risks for each child booked into the detention center. Youths are assessed for the needs and risk, then serviced based on the individual levels.

"That helped Caddo form a plan," said Dr. Tom Grisso, with the MacArthur Foundation. "They were doing that prior, but not with a lot of focus. We did a study on how Caddo was operating and found that more kids were being locked up than really needed to be. The ones who get intensive service, go to detention, should be high-risk kids, and not all children who were being brought into the facility had such levels."

Grisso, who also is a clinical psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, stresses that keeping low-risk kids in detention causes their behavior to worsen, causing more harm than good.

Instead of using detention as a discipline option for nonviolent youth, Scott and parish administrators created community-based programs to better serve them and their parents.

"We're not turning kids loose who commit armed robberies, sex offenses and homicides or felonies against another person," Scott said. "Those are the kids who need to be here. We do have some who are released with conditions, but when we put all of them here, we are creating risks and it backfires on us."

Scott remains hopeful that the continued implementation of juvenile justice reform programs will yield strong positive results.

"The bottom line, it's helping the kids," Scott said. "It's not just reducing the numbers, but giving the children the help they need. We've moved a certain population out of here without causing a safety issue to the community."

It costs Caddo roughly $200 a day to house a juvenile. The amount covers food, schooling, mental health and medical services. Youths entering Caddo Juvenile Detention Center are ages 10 to 16 and stay on average seven days, Scott said.

Caddo is the first parish in the state to adopt Models for Change. Debra K. DePrato, associate professor of Clinical Public Health and Preventive Medicine with LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, is working with other parishes to the implement needs and risk method.

"We've been working with state judges, district attorneys, probation officers and detention personnel," DePrato said. "It's really cutting edge, but it's also a cost benefit."

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Models for Change is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, website operated by Justice Policy Institute.

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