Magazine article The American Prospect

Bayou Betterment: In Louisiana, a New Juvenile Justice System Is Emerging, with the Governor's Strong Support. If Reform Can Happen Here, It Can Succeed Anywhere

Magazine article The American Prospect

Bayou Betterment: In Louisiana, a New Juvenile Justice System Is Emerging, with the Governor's Strong Support. If Reform Can Happen Here, It Can Succeed Anywhere

Article excerpt

THE FORMER CORRECTIONAL OFFICER MOPS sweat off his brow as he plays two-on-one basketball against kids he would have once called offenders. Michael Gaines gestures toward the man who s trying to block a layup by one of the kids. In the old days, he would have just stood here in his uniform and watched while the kids played ball with each other," says Gaines. In those "old days"--about six months ago--Gaines was a deputy warden, overseeing a staff of lieutenants, captains, and officers. Today he's called deputy director, and his staffers, called youth-care workers, are newly trained at managing adolescent behavior. Their charges are the 70 delinquent children, ages 13 to 20, who reside at the crown jewel of Louisiana's juvenile-justice-reform program, the Bridge City Center for Youth.

Gaines and his boss, director (and former warden) John Anderson, point out signs of reform as they walk among the mossy live oaks that create a canopy over the yards of this onetime Catholic orphanage, a cluster of red-brick buildings across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. This summer, the state pulled back the razor wire surrounding the former Bridge City Correctional Center for Youth, plucked the word "correctional" from its name, and relaxed the staff dress code from blue uniforms to polo shirts and khakis. The goal? To remake Bridge City into a model, "Missouri-style" facility that will serve juveniles from the New Orleans region.

Currently, only about 40 percent of Bridge City's kids hail from the New Orleans metropolitan area. The state's pilot program is also still small; by the end of August, about 24 young men will be living in three Missouri-style dorm areas, remodeled at about $8,000 a pop. In place of military-style bunks and blankets, metal footlockers, concrete floors, and open group showers, the new areas offer a softer, homier environment. That means carpeted floors, windows hung with curtains and fronted with houseplants, and showers divided by bright curtains (they'll soon have permanent individual stalls). In the living area, unlocked wooden wardrobes stand next to wooden bunk beds, covered with colorful quilts. Across the room is a group of comfy couches arranged around an end table. It's here, on these couches, that a lot of the dorm's work is accomplished--through peer-group meetings called "circles."

"When we wake up, we check in, call a circle," says Joe, a young man from New Orleans who lives in the first remodeled Bridge City dorm, called Ujima after the Kwanzaa principle for collective work and responsibility. The group also holds routine circles after lunch and at the end of the day, and as necessary, to discuss concerns or complaints with the other kids and the dorm's manager, youth-care worker, and counselor. Additional, impromptu circles are conducted standing together outside or wherever they're needed.

The difference between this dorm and those at other Louisiana juvenile facilities is most apparent during free time. At Bridge City, the young men giggle and joke, work on art projects, write in journals, put an arm on another youth's shoulder when helping him with homework. Gone are the tough poses, the tense jostling, the strictly enforced personal-safety distances.

Getting to this point took some adjustment. Eight teenagers moved into this dorm in June. But by late July, three of those residents had transferred out and been replaced by three other kids, all of them new to the juvenile system. "[Circles] weren't being called consistently. The group was at a standstill," explains dorm manager Patrick Riley. Bo, one of the original eight residents, nods his head. "It was the same thing everyday," he says. "[The circles] were dragging us down more than bringing us up." Eventually, participating in the process will be mandatory for everyone. "We wouldn't do this as a rule," says Gaines. But in this pilot stage, the young men are allowed to opt out, which one teen did, saying "it wasn't for him. …

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