BATON ROUGE, La. — A lawsuit claims Louisiana authorities have illegally detained a teenage boy for nearly one year after his arrest on a burglary charge.
The suit, filed Tuesday by New Orleans-based attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center, seeks the 15-year-old boy's immediate release from a juvenile detention center in Monroe.
The boy was 13 when he was arrested in 2016. His attorneys say he should have been brought before a judge 11 months ago for a hearing to determine if he can be safely released.
Under a law enacted in 2016, children facing non-violent felony charges cannot be held for longer than nine months unless the state demonstrates at a hearing that they must remain incarcerated, according to the boy's attorneys.
Other children have encountered similar delays because state courts aren't uniformly following the new law, said Jamila Johnson, one of the law center's lawyers.
"We talk to kids and we talk to (defense attorneys) who say, 'We don't have these hearings happening with any regularity in our parish,'" she said.
As of December, Johnson said, dozens of children in Louisiana detention centers and group homes were eligible for these nine-month hearings. But she said it's impossible to pinpoint how many of them were being held beyond nine months without getting a hearing.
"We're two years in, and these hearings need to be happening," she said.
The boy's attorneys filed the suit in a state court in Louisiana's Ouachita Parish, where the boy is being held. A judge in Madison Parish had ordered the boy into the secure custody of the state Office of Juvenile Justice in August 2016.
James Bueche, deputy secretary for the Office of Juvenile Justice, is named as the defendant in the suit only because the agency has custody of the boy. Johnson said the law center believes the courts should be responsible for setting up these nine-month hearings.
Bueche, for his part, said the agency doesn't have the authority to request the nine-month hearings. He said he believes that authority belongs to the court or the children's attorneys.
"It's hopefully something we can get some clarification on," he said.
Johnson said pending legislation could help fix the problem. State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat, sponsored a bill that would require the courts to schedule the nine-month hearings when a child is sentenced.