Apparently Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman isn't the only jailer with a rogue prison on his hands. Last week, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Mark Doherty ordered officials from the state Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) to appear in his court on May 19 because conditions at their facility in Bridge City are "so out of control that they may rise to the level of being unconstitutional."
Doherty's "rule to show cause" is an extraordinary measure, but word has it he's not alone in his concerns about egregiously unsafe conditions at the Bridge City Center for Youth (BCCY). His May 5 directive cites 15 reasons why he has ordered the release of two youthful offenders from BCCY.
Here's a sample:
• "Frequent, often daily, fist fights" between individual youths or groups of youths of varying ages in virtually all areas of the campus, including dorms — on at least 10 specific dates in April alone.
• The fights have caused major injuries, including broken bones, that required hospitalization. On one occasion a youth was attacked while being transported out of the facility to a hospital after a fight.
• Youths at BCCY have escaped their dorms by kicking out windows and "running around uncontrolled across the campus for extended periods of time" — once for more than five hours on a rooftop.
• Extended periods of "lockdown" leave youths unable to attend classes.
• "BCCY is chronically understaffed," which leads to unsafe conditions.
• There are no security cameras in key parts of the campus.
• BCCY fails to report fights and injuries to police and instead treats them as "administrative rule violations."
Based on those findings of fact, Doherty declared BCCY "unsafe due to youth on youth violence ... . Specifically, the facility struggles to maintain and restore order, thereby endangering the youths from one another."
Such conditions are horrendous enough on their face, but there's a bigger story here. Given that state lawmakers are considering a bill to raise the age of "adult" offenders from 17 to 18, the notion of putting older offenders in facilities such as BCCY could wind up putting younger offenders in even greater danger. For that reason, Orleans Parish DA Leon Cannizzaro is now "reconsidering" his support for the "raise the age" bill, according Orleans DA spokesman Christopher Bowman.
Elsewhere in the Legislature, a state Senate committee recently grilled OJJ head Dr. Mary L. Livers, who has led OJJ since 2007, about conditions at BCCY — and signaled that her reappointment by Gov. John Bel Edwards may not be confirmed. In Livers' defense, all departments suffered severe budget cuts under former Gov. Bobby Jindal. On the other hand, that probably matters little to Doherty, whose rule last week cited the late Juvenile Judge Clarence Giarrusso's advice to "do no harm" when trying to rehabilitate youthful offenders.
Doherty's May 19 hearing, unlike most proceedings in Juvenile Court, will be open to the public. It's a potential bombshell, and it could be just the beginning. Other area judges are said to be just as determined as Doherty to "do no harm."