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Caddo Parish pursues alternatives to juvenile detention

Kate Archer Kent

A juvenile justice reformer whose tactics to help troubled kids triggered nationwide changes in the justice system died earlier this month. The late Jerome G. Miller’s philosophy touched Caddo Parish, according to Caddo Juvenile Services Director Clay Walker.

“Fundamentally, that’s everything that we’re doing is from his model,” Walker said.

In the 1970s, Miller almost emptied the prison-like reformatories in Massachusetts and found avenues around incarceration as that state’s youth services commissioner.

In Caddo Parish, Walker says, he supports programs that keep youth out of its 24-bed juvenile detention center. He’s working hand-in-hand with Caddo Parish Schools on the school fight diversion program, and finding new funding sources for the Rutherford House's misdemeanor referral center after its state funding was eliminated this year.

The therapeutic response is way more effective. If a kid has done something dangerous -- if you’re talking about a gun or a violent crime -- that’s not what we’re talking about. That child is going to be in a prison. They’re still going to get a therapeutic response, but it’s going to be in a prison setting,” Walker said, adding they may carry out a sentence at Swanson Center for Youth at Monroe. “What I’m talking about are kids that are not committing violent crimes.”

Compared to 15 years ago, Walker says the number of juveniles booked into the Caddo Parish Juvenile Detention Center has been cut in half to 954 last year. But he finds reinforcing good behavior and finding a child’s passion is a hard sell in a parish that has been steadfastly committed to incarceration in the past.

That’s where Miller’s inroads helped, according to Walker.

“Until he had the data and the success, it was hard to convince anybody to do it. But using his data and his success, we’re able to say look, give me a tenth of the money and I’ll take the trumpet lessons and the music and I promise I can turn these kids around more successfully,” Walker said, who draws on his own data now to make decisions about what interventions work and how they can be customized to each child.

Walker, who has been on the job for four years, says the parish is saving hundreds of thousands of dollars annually by keeping kids out of juvenile detention and funneling them into recovery programs that align with their needs.

Miller died on Aug. 7 at age 83.

Chuck Smith brings more than 30 years' broadcast and media experience to Red River Radio. He began his career as a radio news reporter and transitioned to television journalism and newsmagazine production. Chuck studied mass communications at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia and motion picture / television production at the University of California at Los Angeles. He has also taught writing for television at York Technical College in Rock Hill, South Carolina and video / film production at Centenary College of Louisiana, Shreveport.