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Louisiana backpedals on deal to pause youth transfers to adult penitentiary

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lailluminator.com – Bobbi-Jean Misick, Verite – 2023-09-01 08:00:48

Louisiana backpedals on deal to pause youth transfers to adult penitentiary

by Bobbi-Jean Misick, Verite, Louisiana Illuminator
September 1, 2023

The state of Louisiana on Wednesday withdrew from an agreement to temporarily stop transferring incarcerated youth to a former death row unit on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

The reversal came at the end of the final day of a hearing in Baton Rouge federal court on an emergency motion — filed by civil rights attorneys representing incarcerated juveniles — asking U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick to order the state to remove the teenagers already held in the controversial facility and to block future transfers there.

On Wednesday, Dick said she planned to issue a ruling on the motion on Friday, Sept. 8.

Earlier this month, Dick asked the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice to agree to a temporary stay of transfers pending her decision. The state agreed. But on Wednesday, its attorneys said OJJ was revoking the agreement to ensure adequate security within the juvenile detention system following the the Sunday (Aug. 27) escape of four detainees from one of the state's youth detention facilities, the Center for Youth in Bunkie.

The state first announced the plan to move some juveniles to Angola in July 2022 in response to a series of violent episodes at OJJ detention centers and pending the completion of a secure unit at the Swanson Center for Youth at Monroe. Within weeks of the announcement, attorneys filed a suit seeking to stop the plan. Last fall, however, Dick allowed the state to move ahead, on the condition that youths sent there would not be subjected to harsh living conditions or discipline and that the state would provide them the same level of services there that it is legally required to provide at other juvenile facilities.

The emergency motion filed last month in the ongoing suit argues that the state has not lived up to its promises and has been violating the youths' civil rights by holding them at the notorious adult prison. The attorneys argue that teenagers sent there have been pepper-sprayed by guards and routinely confined to their cells for large parts of the day, and that educational services there are woefully inadequate.

Alleged ‘harmful conditions' for youth at Angola may violate Constitution, feds say

Following the hearing, Lemuel Montgomery, III, an attorney for the state, said closing the facility at the adult prison, called the Bridge City Center for Youth-West Feliciana, would deeply compromise public safety.

“There's going to be a real risk if the facility ceases to operate,” Montgomery said. “Witness after witness said Louisiana needs this facility to keep those youth safe, to keep the staff safe and to keep the public safe.”

David Utter, lead attorney for the teens in the lawsuit, said the state's rationale for ending the short-term agreement was “deeply flawed.”

“The state fails to acknowledge that this is an incredibly broken juvenile justice system,” Utter said. “Rather than address their own problems … they're gonna blame the kids, and they're just gonna keep on mistreating kids by putting them in Angola.”

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Pepper spray, escape attempts and ‘non-compliant' youth

Throughout the hearing, which began on Aug. 15, attorneys for the state made the case that the Angola unit provides an adequate level of security to house particularly troubled youths, which they argue is not available in dedicated youth detention centers.

Lt. Col. Travion Gordon, a security supervisor at the West Feliciana unit, on Tuesday testified that juveniles at the facility have documented violent and disruptive behavior. He said he'd known some of the teens since they were 12 or 13 years old through working security at another facility, and had seen some of them enter the juvenile justice system multiple times. He said some youth will continue to be disruptive until they turn 18 and can be tried in criminal court.

In his testimony, Gordon said confining youth to their cells when they are “non-compliant” is necessary to keep the rest of the teens in compliance.

“When they see another youth being non-compliant, they follow the youth,” Gordon said.

Gordon said that the highly secure unit, which has barred cells unlike the open-dorm layout in dedicated youth detention centers, keeps youths from stealing from each other during sleeping hours, or organizing escapes or assaults on other detainees or security staff. Asked about one detainee who managed to get through a fence on the property, he said that the layers of security and Angola's remote location kept the teenager from completing the escape.

“I knew he was gonna have to get through two more gates and he was gonna have to go through some woods that's blocking out the sun,” Gordon said.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs had alleged that the state was subjecting teens to conditions similar to solitary confinement, which the state prohibits for juveniles except as a short-term safety measure.

A cell restriction log sheet for June, presented to Gordon during cross examination by attorneys for the youths, showed that one youth had been on cell restriction for 14 consecutive days and was later placed on cell restriction for four more consecutive days that month.

But Gordon echoed other OJJ staff members who said during cell restriction — when youth are confined to their cells — they are not truly alone, as they engage with staff and are given educational and mental health programming.

“What the evidence has shown is that when they're in there, they're being communicated with, they're being fully programmed, they have opportunities to leave and have visits to the medical unit, to their case manager, those kinds of things,” Montgomery said. “So the isolation, the aloneness that normally comes along with what people think of as solitary confinement, that's not in play here.”

Gordon and other staffers claimed during the hearing that guards rarely use pepper spray. But according to a chemical agent log introduced by the plaintiffs, guards pepper-sprayed teens five times in June alone.

“This system at Angola is one of the most punitive I've seen,” Utter said in an interview. “There's no question that it's really hurting kids.”

‘Helping them get better'

As the hearing came to a close this week, attorneys for the state argued that despite being in a prison unit designed for adults on death row, youth who are transferred to the West Feliciana facility are being given proper services, including mental health evaluations and treatment, to facilitate their rehabilitation.

“[Staff are] committed to the education and the programming of the youth and to helping them get better, so they can function in society on the outside when they get out of the system,” Montgomery said.

Youth sent to the unit at Angola are placed there temporarily and are returned to general population juvenile justice centers once they complete programming based on cognitive behavioral therapy, OJJ leadership said. One youth, identified by the alias Daniel D., has been sent to the facility in West Feliciana three times since it opened in October.

The facility's social services counselor, Sandry Bryant, who testified on Tuesday. administers that rehabilitation program. Throughout the hearing, plaintiffs' attorneys called witnesses who criticized Bryant's lack of credentials. Bryant is not a licensed social worker and does not have a provisional counseling license.

Under questioning from Utter, she testified that she is not trained to identify depression in adolescents, a concern for the plaintiffs' attorneys in part because of the amount of time the youths have spent alone in their cells.

“You don't know anything about the impact of locking a kid in their cell for 20 hours a day?” Utter asked Bryant during cross-examination. “No,” Bryant replied.

In emotional testimony, Bryant pushed back on the characterization that she was unqualified for the job.

“It is disheartening for me to be sitting here, knowing what I do and the impact that I have with the kids and the parents,” Bryant said. “For me to be sitting here today, having to be humiliated is hurtful because I know what I do and I love what I do.”

The July motion asks for a preliminary injunction, which would only apply while the case — which seeks an order to shutter the facility permanently — is ongoing. The motion also provided Dick with options for alternative relief short of halting transfers and removing youths already housed at Angola.

But after the hearing ended, Utter said the plaintiffs remained committed to stopping the state from continuing to use the Angola facility and would continue to seek its permanent closure should Dick opt to keep it running.

This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Landry removes job requirements, trumps local authority for industrial tax breaks

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lailluminator.com – Greg LaRose – 2024-02-22 05:00:54

Landry removes job requirements, trumps local authority for industrial tax breaks

by Greg LaRose, Louisiana Illuminator
February 22, 2024

Companies that receive major breaks on their local property taxes to invest in large industrial projects in Louisiana will no longer have to set hiring goals to get the incentive, plus they won't need approval from local taxing authorities if the governor is in favor of their proposal.   

Gov. Jeff Landry signed an executive order Wednesday that upends the standards and approval process that's been place for the Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) since 2016. The signing took place during the governor's appearance at a Louisiana Association of Business and Industry luncheon, according to the Baton Rouge Business Report

“This program is about capital investment. It is not about job creation,” Landry said.

Since 1998, Louisiana has awarded more than $20 billion in local tax breaks to industry through its Industrial Tax Exemption Program, according to an Ohio River Valley Institute analysis. 

Flow from the ITEP spigot slowed significantly in 2016 then-Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an executive order that required local approval of industrial tax exemptions. He also reduced the tax break available from 100% of property taxes to 80% and inserted a job-creation requirement for companies. Landry's order keeps the tax reduction at the same level.

The executive order he signed Wednesday also condenses the process for companies to receive local approval on their tax exemptions. Previously, each local body that collects property taxes had to approve tax breaks independently with a separate public hearing. For example, a parish school board could approve the tax exemption, but a parish council or sheriff could reject it. The business would then receive a partial tax break.  

Landry's new arrangement calls for a single parish industrial board, which would include representatives from the taxing agencies, to consider ITEP applications. Its vote would apply to all local agencies that receive property taxes, meaning companies would get approval a total tax break or none.

The executive order also upends the sequence of approval to award industrial tax exemptions, placing ultimate power in the governor's hands. Local approval has been necessary for an ITEP request to advance for consideration to the state Board of Commerce and Industry, a 24-member panel of appointees from business groups and the governor. 

Now, under Landry's order, companies will first submit their applications to the Board of Commerce and Industry. If their request is approved, the state panel will then notify a parish industrial board that it must hold a public hearing on the application within 45 days.

However, the order says little about what weight the local recommendation has in the ITEP approval process or how it factors into the governor's decision.

“Input from the Local ITEP Committee is important for consideration of an industrial tax exemption; however, it should not unduly delay the ITEP application process,” the order reads.

In an email, the Illuminator asked Landry spokesperson Kate Kelly about the governor's ability to override a local ITEP vote.

“The governor is the final say,” Kelly said.

Together Louisiana, a coalition of church and civic groups, has been highly critical of the state's generous ITEP giveaways. In a statement Wednesday, the group questioned whether Landry's order turned the incentive program into “a gift.”

“If a corporation gets a tax exemption, not to bring in a new plant or create jobs, but just as a public subsidy for its routine capital investments — investments, that is, that would have happened anyway — the result is not economic development. It's the opposite,” the Together Louisiana statement said. 

“In that scenario, local communities don't get new economic activity, but they still lose the millions in tax revenue from their schools, roads and police,” the statement continued. “They lose jobs — the teachers, construction workers, sheriff's deputies and others who would have provided the services that went unfunded. And their property taxes start going up, to fill the holes in the tax base left by each new round of gratuitous giveaway.”

Without any job requirements, companies can now apply for tax exemptions for most any large-scale investment in Louisiana. Landry's order does specify that maintenance expenses, environmental compliance upgrades and replacement parts that are not part of an extensive restoration do not qualify for ITEP awards.

The order goes into effect for all ITEP applications moving forward, effective Feb. 21, but does not apply retroactively to applications or exemptions.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Criminal justice reform advocates ask court to force Legislature to hear from public

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lailluminator.com – Piper Hutchinson – 2024-02-21 16:51:56

Criminal justice reform advocates ask court to force Legislature to hear from public

by Piper Hutchinson, Louisiana Illuminator
February 21, 2024

Three Louisiana criminal justice reform advocates have asked a state court to prevent the Legislature from discussing several proposals until more public testimony is heard on the bills. 

Their petition was filed Wednesday in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge by Norris Henderson, executive director of Voice of the Experienced, Ronald Marshall, chief policy analyst with Voice of the Experienced, and Erica Navalance, a staff attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative. Read the full petition below. 

They contend House Administration of Criminal Justice Chair Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, has irregularly limited public input over two days of hearings during a special session on crime policy. The agenda for the session features a string of bills, with Gov. Jeff Landry's support, that call for harsher consequences for criminals.   

The committee enacted a rule to limit each public commenter to three minutes and cut off public debate after proponents and opponents of a bill each testified for one hour. The three-minute rule is a common practice at the Capitol, but overall time limits are seldom used. 

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Committee members said they supported these rules to get through testimony more quickly. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the committee had a full schedule of bills that attracted a large number of public comments. The special session doesn't have to end until March 5, but leaders have suspended the rules several times in order to expedite hearings on bills rather than letting them lay over for a day between hearings. 

House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Matthew Willard of New Orleans and other Democrats have criticized Republicans for fast-tracking legislation that would almost totally reshape Louisiana's criminal justice system, giving the public limited opportunity for input. 

The court petition seeks to prevent the full House of Representatives from discussing the bill until the House Criminal Justice Committee holds another hearing to allow more public comment. The complainants say they traveled to Baton Rouge to testify, but the committee's time limits prevented them from speaking. 

House Speaker Phillip Devillier, R-Eunice, defended the committee, arguing two hours of discussion per bill is reasonable, and that the Legislature is allowed to suspend the rules to advance bills. 

The complainants want to pause debate on four bills: 

House Bill 4, by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carenco, which limits post-conviction relief opportunities. House Bill 6, by Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, which expands the methods by which Louisiana executes people and shields records related to executions from public viewHouse Bill 9, by Villio, which eliminates parole in almost all circumstances House Bill 10, by Villio, which limits good time credits and credit for time served

 

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Biden unveils latest round of student loan cancellation to aid 153,000 borrowers

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lailluminator.com – Jennifer Shutt – 2024-02-21 16:26:30

Biden unveils latest round of student loan cancellation to aid 153,000 borrowers

by Jennifer Shutt, Louisiana Illuminator
February 21, 2024

President Joe Biden expanded his push to eliminate student loan debt Wednesday, saying during a speech the initiative is part of a campaign promise to address the “broken” system.

“While a college degree is still a ticket to a better life, that ticket is too expensive,” Biden said. “And too many Americans are still saddled with unsustainable debt in exchange for a college degree.”

Biden, who made his remarks while on a trip to California that also included fundraising for his 2024 campaign, argued that canceling student loan debt not only helps those who receive the benefit directly, but those in their communities.

“When people's student debt is relieved, they buy homes, they start businesses, they contribute, they engage in the community in ways they weren't able to before and it actually grows the economy,” Biden said.

The latest round of student debt forgiveness includes nearly 153,000 borrowers and a total of $1.2 billion in debt, according to a fact sheet from the White House.

Those receiving loan forgiveness are enrolled in the Saving on a Valuable Education or SAVE repayment plan, have been paying back their loans for at least 10 years and originally took out less than $12,000 in loans.

This week's actions bring total student loan cancellation by the Biden administration to $138 billion for nearly 3.9 million people, according to the fact sheet.

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Repayments tied to income, family size

The so-called SAVE Plan allows borrowers to set their student loan repayments based on their income and family size, not the amount of student loan debt they hold.

“The SAVE plan ensures that if borrowers are making their monthly payments, their balances cannot grow because of unpaid interest,” according to the White House's fact sheet. “And, starting in July, undergraduate loan payments will be cut in half, capping a borrower's loan payment at 5% of their discretionary income.”

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on a call with reporters Tuesday there are about 7.5 million people enrolled in the SAVE Plan and that 4.3 million don't have a monthly payment.

“Many SAVE forgiveness recipients come from lower- and middle-income backgrounds,” Cardona said. “Many took out loans to attend community colleges. Some were at high risk for delinquency and default. That's why the actions we're announcing today do matter.”

Cardona said those eligible for this round of student debt cancellation would receive an email from Biden telling them about the move.

New FAFSA rollout criticized

Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy said in a written statement the latest round of student loan forgiveness is misguided.

“The Biden Department of Education has been unable to fulfill their basic responsibilities mandated by Congress and essential to families, like implementing FAFSA,” Cassidy said, referring to the application college students fill out to access student aid, including grants, scholarships and loans.

The Biden administration's efforts to revamp the form have been marred by delays and errors. 

“Instead, they have spent a considerable amount of time prioritizing their student loan schemes to shift someone else's debt onto taxpayers that chose not to go to college or already paid off their loans,” Cassidy added. “This is unfair, manipulative and a cynical attempt to buy votes.”

Cassidy is the ranking member on the U.S. Senate's Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, often referred to as the HELP Committee.

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Supreme Court decision

Biden, speaking at the Julian Dixon Library in Culver City, California, criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for blocking his original student loan forgiveness plan. 

“Early in my term, I announced a major plan to provide millions of working families with debt relief for their college student debt,” Biden said. “But my MAGA Republican friends in the Congress, elected officials and special interests stepped in and sued us. And the Supreme Court blocked it. But that didn't stop me.”

Biden said the justices' opinion in that case led him to “pursue alternative paths” for student debt relief, which includes the announcement he made Wednesday.

Canceling some student loan debt, Biden said, is about giving people a chance.

“That's all we're doing … giving people a chance, a fighting chance to make it, because no one who is willing to work hard in America should be denied the opportunity to have that chance.”

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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