BATON ROUGE — A last-minute budget adjustment in the special session has lessened worries Louisiana won't be ready for a law change that will move more teenage offenders from the adult to the juvenile prosecution system.
In the final hours before they adjourned, lawmakers shuffled $4 million more than planned to the Office of Juvenile Justice's budget for the financial year that begins in July. Agency spokeswoman Beth Touchet-Morgan said Monday that should be enough money to handle the influx of youth offenders expected in March when Louisiana's age of adult prosecution rises.
"We should be all right with where we are," she said. "We're feeling pretty confident that we'll be able to serve those kids."
Louisiana intends to stop automatically routing 17-year-olds through the adult criminal justice system when arrested. The juvenile justice system will start handling 17-year-olds charged with non-violent crimes March 1. Offenders charged with more serious or violent crimes won't move to the juvenile system until July 2020.
Touchet-Morgan said the dollars will keep the agency from laying off juvenile probation and parole officers who will be needed because the Office of Juvenile Justice expects to have an annual increase in supervision cases once the law change takes effect. In addition, the money will pay for contracts with group homes for additional offender housing capacity.
The dollars also will be used to partially open a juvenile lockup facility in Bunkie that Louisiana built but hasn't spent the money to staff. Touchet-Morgan said the partial opening will happen later in the year, but she didn't have an exact timeline.
The money routed to the Office of Juvenile Justice was nearly $11 million less than requested. The reshuffled dollars were taken from the corrections department, lessening dollars available for a corrections officer pay raise.
But Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said Monday he'll still proceed with the pay hike as planned, even though he didn't get the full $9.4 million to cover it.
LeBlanc said the increase is needed to stem prison guard turnover rates that are so high they threaten safety. Of the 1,117 entry-level corrections officers hired in 2016, 814 of them left the jobs within the first year, according to agency data, a 73 percent turnover rate.
"If we don't do (the raise), then we're just digging the hole deeper for our department," LeBlanc said Monday. "I firmly believe this is a public safety necessity."
The pay hikes, which still need civil service approval, vary from 2 percent to 5 percent.
The minimum hourly wage for a cadet, the lowest-ranking corrections officer, will rise from $12.70 to $13.97, under the plan, a raise of $2,641 annually. For the highest-ranking position of colonel, the minimum hourly pay of $25 will rise to $25.50, a $1,040 yearly increase.
Both the juvenile justice and corrections departments are in line for additional dollars if the state brings in more money than the current forecast. If that money doesn't come in, LeBlanc said he'll be asking for additional dollars later in the budget year to cover the pay hike costs.
"If we don't do this, something bad is going to happen in our prison system, and it's going to cost us a heck of a lot more money than this pay raise," he said.