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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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Louisiana Illuminator

After U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow bump stocks, U.S. Senate rejects bill to ban them • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Ariana Figueroa – 2024-06-19 06:25:13

by Ariana Figueroa, Louisiana Illuminator
June 19, 2024

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts blocked a bipartisan bill Tuesday that would ban bump stocks following a Supreme Court decision that repealed a Trump-era rule against using the gun accessory.

Ricketts, a Nebraska Republican, objected to New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich's request that the chamber approve his bill — cosponsored by Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins — by unanimous consent.

Heinrich attempted to pass the bill, which the trio introduced last year, following the Supreme Court ruling last week that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lacked the authority to ban bump stocks.

“As a firearms owner myself, there's no legitimate use for a bump stock,” Heinrich said. “What they are tailor made for is a mass shooting.”

The bill, S. 1909, would ban the sale of bump stocks that allow semi-automatic weapons to rapidly fire multiple rounds like a machine gun.

Ricketts argued that the Supreme Court made the right decision and said the bill didn't just ban bump stocks but also “targets other firearm accessories.”

Ricketts added that the bill is a violation of the Second Amendment.

“This bill is about banning as many firearm accessories as possible and giving ATF broad authority to ban most semi-automatic firearms,” Ricketts said. “It's an unconstitutional attack on law-abiding gun owners.”

Heinrich said the bill would not ban a large amount of firearm accessories, but would ban things like Glock switches, which can be attached to the side of a Glock handgun to convert a semi-automatic pistol into a fully automatic firearm.

“I think the American people understand what common-sense gun safety looks like,” Heinrich said.

Senate procedure requires 60 votes to proceed on most legislation. But for the chamber to approve a measure by unanimous consent, no senator can object.

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Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court on Friday overturned an ATF regulation, enacted during former President Donald Trump's administration after the Las Vegas mass shooting, which defined a semi-automatic rifle equipped with a bump stock attachment as a machine gun. Machine guns are generally prohibited under federal law.

In that mass shooting, a gunman used rifles outfitted with bump stocks to fire into a crowd of 22,000 people at a music festival, killing 58 people that night and two more who died of their injuries later, and injuring more than 500.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor that the bill was needed because the Supreme Court's decision was “an utter disgrace.”

“It will endanger our communities, endanger law enforcement, and make it easier for mass shooters to unleash carnage,” Schumer, a New York Democrat, said.

The opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, who is a strong defender of Second Amendment gun rights, deemed that the ATF exceeded its statutory authority in prohibiting the sale and possession of bump stocks, which he said differed importantly from machine guns.

“Nothing changes when a semiautomatic rifle is equipped with a bump stock,” Thomas wrote. “Between every shot, the shooter must release pressure from the trigger and allow it to reset before reengaging the trigger for another shot.”

Additionally, the decision, which was split along ideological lines, limits the federal government's ability to address gun violence in the absence of congressional action.

More federal gun legislation unlikely

With a split Congress, any gun-safety related legislation is unlikely to pass. However, after Friday's decision, President Joe Biden called on Congress to ban bump stocks and assault weapons.

“Americans should not have to live in fear of this mass devastation,” Biden said at the time.

The last time Congress passed gun legislation was in 2022 after two mass shootings that occurred less than two weeks apart.

One was at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed. The other was in Buffalo, New York, where a white supremacist targeted a predominantly Black neighborhood and killed 10 Black people.

The 2022 gun safety legislation did not ban any firearms but provided funds for mental health and to help states enact red flag laws, which allow the courts to temporarily remove a firearm from an individual who is a threat to themselves or others, among other provisions.

That same year, the Supreme Court decided on a major gun-related case that invalidated a New York law against carrying a firearm in public without showing a special need for protection.

Because of that decision, there's another gun-related case before the court that will test a federal law that prevents the possession of firearms by a person who is subject to a domestic violence protective order. A decision on that is expected this month.

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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 X.

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Louisiana lags on electric vehicle charging program, but DOTD sees ‘no reason to rush’ • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Wesley Muller – 2024-06-19 05:00:24

by Wesley Muller, Louisiana Illuminator
June 19, 2024

Two years after receiving federal funding to build electric vehicle charging stations across the state, Louisiana has yet to ask for bids from companies that might want the money. However, state transportation officials say there is a reason for their sluggish pace. 

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD), plans to start the request-for-proposal process as soon as it identifies an appropriate “contracting mechanism” under state law to use the money, DOTD spokesperson Rodney Mallett said. 

The Federal Highway Administration allocated $73.4 million to Louisiana under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program in 2022. NEVI is a product of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that Congress approved in 2021. It included billions for state transportation agencies to build a network of rapid chargers along major highways. 

Louisiana's initial response was on par with other states. DOTD submitted its NEVI deployment plan by the federal deadline of August 2022. However, while states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and others now are disbursing the grant money or have already built some EV charging stations, Louisiana hasn't yet figured out how to spend it. 

“There's no real reason to spend two-plus years figuring out how to get this money to grant recipients when other states are already opening up chargers,” said Ryan McKinnon of the Charge Ahead Partnership, an EV charger lobby group. “Lots of states will be opening up chargers pretty soon, and it sounds like Louisiana will be sitting on the sidelines.” 

McKinnon said Louisiana is one of 11 states that have still not asked for bids to use the NEVI grant money. 

Some congressional Republicans and anti-union groups have directed their criticism at the Biden administration, claiming the delays are the result of mismanagement or of labor requirements within federal rules. Officials closest to the situation say the delays are largely because it is a new program that they want done correctly.

Mallet said the federal rules for the NEVI program don't “fit cleanly” within DOTD's usual contracting methods. DOTD often writes contracts for projects in which the agency owns and maintains the infrastructure, such as highways. In contrast, the EV charger grants will pay for the construction of infrastructure for which “ownership and operation will be transferred” from the state, in most cases, to a private entity, he said.

Although the Biden administration has aimed for a goal of building 500,000 charging stations by 2026, Mallet said the NEVI funds do not lapse, so there is no hard deadline to complete the projects.

“The key is to do it right for the long term,” Mallet said. “No reason to rush it through.”

States to receive $2.5B from feds for electric vehicle charging infrastructure

Tyler Herrmann with Louisiana Clean Fuels, a nonprofit working with DOTD on the NEVI rollout, said earlier, smaller EV charger programs saw build-outs at sites that weren't very practical. 

The chargers were often installed at public libraries or apartment complexes — places with no real interest or resources to maintain them. Without that routine maintenance, chargers would break and often stay that way for years. 

The government learned from those programs and is now taking care to avoid making those same kinds of mistakes, Herrmann said.   

“It is a unique situation,” Herrmann said of DOTD's efforts to administer the NEVI grants. “The program is pretty much completely different from what the DOTD does normally.”

In the meantime, Louisiana Clean Fuels has been working to build a workforce of technicians who can install and repair EV chargers and supply equipment.

Baton Rouge Community College just recently saw its first class of students graduate from a three-week course in which they learned some of the fundamentals required to become nationally certified Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment technicians. 

Herrmann said about a dozen students completed the first course, which will soon be offered at other community colleges across the state.

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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 X.

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St. Tammany’s embattled coroner targeted under new state laws • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Julie O'Donoghue – 2024-06-18 17:43:54

by Julie O'Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator
June 18, 2024

Gov. Jeff Landry has signed two new laws to weaken the authority of St. Tammany Parish's controversial coroner who is already the subject of a recall campaign. 

Dr. Christopher Tape drew scrutiny from lawmakers after a WWL-TV investigation revealed he had been accused of child sex abuse in New Mexico decades ago and then settled a lawsuit over workplace sexual harassment allegations in the past few years. Charges in the New Mexico case were quashed after the prosecutor failed to move the case forward in a timely fashion. 

Almost immediately after taking office, Tape also tried to cancel a multi-parish program housed in the St. Tammany coroner's office that provides nurses to perform sexual assault exams on victims. The service helps police collect evidence and assists Northshore district attorneys who prosecute sex crimes. 

Legislators responded to Tape's actions, as well as his refusal to resign from his job, by filing legislation to limit his power.

Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington, sponsored a new law to give the St. Tammany Parish Council greater authority over the coroner's public finances and the ability to remove any coroner convicted of violent crimes. Moving forward, candidates for St. Tammany coroner must submit records regarding their criminal background to the local clerk of court.

Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, authored a second law that allows the state attorney general to move sexual assault victim programs to another parish if the local coroner is unqualified or unwilling to perform those duties. 

In Tape's case, a transfer has already happened. Last month, the Jefferson Parish Coroner's Office took over the sexual assault examination program serving the Northshore region. The two parishes have entered into a cooperative endeavor agreement that allowed Jefferson Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich to hire the nurses who worked for the St. Tammany program.

Meanwhile, the organizers of Tape's recall must gather 35,000 signatures from qualified voters before mid-October for an election potentially forcing Tape out of office to take place.

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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 X.

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