State Rep. Debbie Villio's juvenile records bill focuses on three Louisiana parishes with majority-Black cities, ostensibly to bring transparency to a juvenile crime problem by allowing everyone to peer into the cases of young people accused — but not yet adjudicated — of serious crimes.
Amid backlash accusing Villio of targeting Black juveniles, some legislators argued that if she's serious about opening sealed juvenile court records to public review, House Bill 321 should apply statewide. Villio responded by adding language that she claimed makes the bill statewide in scope. "It's in there," she said.
If the bill becomes law, juveniles 13 years and older in Caddo, East Baton Rouge and Orleans parishes would have their juvenile court records made accessible to anyone in some cases. No other parishes are included in the bill.
Caddo includes Shreveport, a city that is more than 57% Black. East Baton Rouge includes Baton Rouge, a city that is more than 53% Black. Orleans is also New Orleans, which is about 60% Black.
Villio and Attorney General Jeff Landry, who supports the bill, cite a list that includes these three cities on a top 10 crime list.
A different list includes Alexandria and Monroe — but Rapides and Ouachita parishes are not in Villio's bill. Neither is Villio's home parish of Jefferson, which has its own juvenile crime problem.
If a lawmaker wants to put real-time data about juvenile court proceedings online, why not propose a pilot program including his or her home parish?
I shared my concerns directly with Landry, who said he understood. He, too, said the bill was being changed to include all parishes.
But did it really include all 64 parishes?
I watched Villio defend her bill last week. When asked why the focus was on three predominately Black parishes, Villio, a former prosecutor in St. Tammany and Jefferson parishes, said those parishes have the most crime. She said it was a pilot program that could potentially go statewide. She told her colleagues she doesn't know how to make it any clearer.
Actually, it's as clear as mud.
Nevertheless, the Louisiana House approved the bill overwhelmingly, 63-36, sending it to the state Senate.
For many reasons, I hope it dies there.
I tried to talk about the bill with Villio, without success. But I'm thankful to her for responding to some texts.
"It would be mandatory statewide," she texted. "Plain and simple."
Hmm. After reading the bill several times, I have a clear picture of what it actually does. For example, the word "statewide" appears nowhere in the measure.
The pilot program sunsets on July 1, 2025. What happens then? The bill doesn't say.
Villio pointed to language in the bill that says, "This Article (Ch. C. 412 Confidentiality of Records) shall not apply to Subparagraph (B) (1) of Article 879, in which those records shall be made available to the public..."
"It is a shall and the public is statewide," she added.
So, Villio's (and, I assume, Landry's) idea of making the bill "statewide" means giving people everywhere access to the records. Truth is once you put something online as a public record it can be accessed from anywhere in the world.
And the records that will be open to public review are not from all 64 parishes — just the three with large Black populations.
Though she won a majority vote in the House, not all Villio's Republican colleagues support her idea. State Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, was brave enough to be honest: "This is reckless and irresponsible. I don't care who the sponsor is."
Interestingly, all announced candidates for attorney general agree with Ivey — and most of them are Republicans.
Villio's bill, which requires the clerks of targeted juvenile courts to put the records online, has an inherent vulnerability: It needs a funding component. If the Legislature doesn't appropriate money to pay for the bill's mandate, the pilot program cannot begin.
State law wisely prohibits lawmakers from imposing mandates on local officials unless there's money to pay for the mandate — typically via a state appropriation to cover the costs.
If Villio's bill passes, Gov. John Bel Edwards should veto it — likewise for any appropriation funding the program. The 63 House votes for the bill fell short of the House's two-thirds margin — 70 — needed to override a veto.
Meanwhile, senators should heed the advice of their former coaches who no doubt cautioned them, "Don't fall for the head fake." They should vote HB321 down — and refuse to fund it.
Because juvenile crime is a statewide problem, not just in majority-Black cities.