Those of us who live in urban metro areas often see news reports of juvenile violent crime. Many rural areas don't have media covering news like that, which gives rural folks a false impression that juvenile violence only happens in or near cities.
Truth is juvenile crime happens everywhere. That's why many politicians, particularly at election time, propose ways to reduce it.
Attorney General Jeff Landry, who's running for governor in the fall, is one such politician, as is Kenner state Rep. Debbie Villio. Both want to do something about juvenile crime by creating the Truth and Transparency in the Louisiana Criminal Justice System Pilot Program via Villio's HB 321.
As conceived, I'd title Villio's measure the Open Path to Nail More Black Teenagers Pilot Program.
The original draft of HB 321 suggested that "transparency" in the juvenile justice system means giving the public access to detailed information about juvenile offenders so the public would know which kids are causing problems.
By law, juvenile records are sealed. The idea behind that is to recognize that young offenders deserve a chance to start over — without the stain of a juvenile record — when they turn 18.
Villio's bill initially designated three of Louisiana's 64 parishes — Orleans, East Baton Rouge and Caddo — for a pilot program that would release the names of juvenile offenders. Those three parishes have cities with large Black populations: New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport.
The idea triggered a quick backlash. The bill now includes the entire state.
As amended, the "transparency" measure would make all sorts of information available about juveniles who are at least 13 years old and commit crimes that would be considered violent criminal offenses if committed by adults.
That newly available information would include the names of the defendant as well as the judges and attorneys involved; arrest and summons info; bail and custody decisions; charge dismissals; hearings on "all motions or status conferences," and more.
That's just wrong.
Whether the children affected by HB 321 are Black, White, Latino, Asian or Indigenous, they should not be smeared with a criminal record that can be found with a Google search or on a state website.
After listening to attorney general candidates talk about crime and other issues at Wednesday's Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana conference in Baton Rouge, I asked Landry and some AG candidates about Villio's measure.
According to the AG's gubernatorial campaign, Landry and his team came up with the idea. They worked with Villio and her team to draft HB 321 and, with help from clerks of court, to amend it.
The AG said the bill could play an important role in fighting crime. In his view of crime, "Juveniles are responsible for a lot of it." He said the effort is in response to Louisianans who say, "We want to be able to police kids in our neighborhoods."
Landry adds that providing juvenile court information would help citizens do that. "This is community policing," he told me in an interview. "You have a right to know."
Landry's solicitor general, Liz Murrill, wants his job. They're in sync on lots of issues, but not this one.
Murrill agrees with the intent, but she didn't like the 3-parish focus. By including all parishes, she said, "We'd have some data to compare." Still, she expressed concerns about exposing juvenile records.
State Rep. John Stefanski, another candidate for state AG, was blunt. "I have deep concerns about releasing juvenile records and would really have to be convinced about why that's going to help with crime problems," he said.
Marty Maley, a former assistant district attorney now running for Landry's job, agrees with Stefanski. "We certainly have to do something about violent crime," he said, then added, "I'm not sure this is a great idea." Why? "We have a juvenile justice system for a reason."
Another AG candidate, John Belton, the district attorney for Lincoln and Union parishes in northern Louisiana, said he wanted to check in with the Louisiana District Attorneys Association before responding. I didn't hear back on that. I reached out to the LDAA. I didn't hear from that organization, either.
I don't fault anyone for wanting to help citizens get more involved and better informed, but HB 321 is an emotional and political response to a complex problem. Landry and Villio are right that something has to be done, but wrong with this approach.
And it's telling that every candidate for Landry's current job who expressed an opinion on HB 321 had serious concerns about it.
This one isn't tough. HB 321 deserves to die.