Trisha Labbe's Letter to the Editor on Criminal Justice Session
Leadership Tangipahoa brings together people from diverse backgrounds and professions to learn about a specific aspect of Tangipahoa Parish on a monthly basis. In April, our focus was on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. For many of us, when we think of these subjects, we tend to lump them together limiting the understanding to that of a police officer, handcuffs, and jail. However, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice are two different entities that work together, one ensures observance of and obedience to the laws by the act of enforcing the laws, and the other focuses on the system of practices and institutions of governments directed at upholding social control, deterring and mitigating crime, and sanctioning those who violate laws with criminal penalties and rehabilitation efforts, respectively.
Our day began at the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center on Highway 190 East of Robert where we met Russell Sanders, Director of Operations and other members of the staff. This Detention Center is for juveniles ages 10 to 17 who have been arrested but have not yet been convicted. This Detention Center is regional in that it serves five parishes including Tangipahoa. One thousand to thirteen hundred juveniles per year are assisted at this facility and their stay on average is thirty to sixty days. Over the years, this facility has gone from an “Institutional” mode of operation to a “Therapeutic-Caregiver” model, lending the opportunity for the juvenile to leave with a sense of dignity, hope, self-worth, and belief in themselves. The juvenile is given expectations and is encouraged to work toward their personal goals. Discipline is maintained and based on a daily point system, which is “consequences to their actions”; hence, positive actions earn points and privileges, negative actions cause loss of points and privileges. The entire facility is filled with positive reminders and mottos, affords the juvenile to continue their education (non-transferable credit) in a class-like setting, and is staffed with highly trained, professional role models who end up being the juvenile’s mentors. An indication of the positive, rehabilitative environment is the sign that the juvenile faces at the point of intake: “We are here to help you take failure, not as a measure of your worth, but as a chance for a new start”.
The morning continued with briefings from fellow classmates in Leadership Tangipahoa: Monica George, a Probation and Parole Officer for the state of Louisiana, and Shirley Verberne, a Probation Officer for the Office of Juvenile Justice. Ms. George explained the difference between probation and parole; probation being time served outside of jail for a wrongdoing (if the person violates their probation, they can go to jail and serve their time in jail from the beginning of their sentence) and parole being time served in jail, but may be released early (shortened) due to good behavior. While being a parole officer can be trying and difficult at times, Ms. Verberne expressed how rewarding her job is when she sees those juveniles that she has helped become responsible young adults. Both Ms. George and Ms. Verbene have a sincere passion for their profession and it seems to be driven by their compassion for the people for whom they are responsible while upholding and enforcing the law. Another classmate, Jodie Powell, Executive Director of Crime Stoppers Tangipahoa, shared statistics of how Crime Stoppers Tangipahoa is an asset to our Parish by enabling people to come forward to assist in solving crime. By allowing the “tipster” to keep their anonymity, Crime Stoppers helps evade witnesses’ concerns of fear of retaliation and indifference by offering cash rewards.
We also met District Attorney, Scott Perrilloux, and Judge Bob Morrison who gave us an overview of the judicial process. The District Attorney’s office handles criminal cases and has the discretion as to whether to charge a person of the crime or not. Judge Morrison explained that there are none judges serving the 21st Judicial District of which eight judges handle adult cases and one judge handles juvenile cases. An underlying sentiment expressed was that of compassion for both the victim and the perpetrator. Determining whether a charge should be placed or whether a sentence should be served requires evaluation and discernment for the case at hand, it is not “cookie-cutter”. The responsibilities of the office of the District Attorney and that of the judge are great and it is reassuring that all aspects of a crime are taken into consideration prior to a charge or a conviction takes place.
An ongoing delight of Leadership Tangipahoa is the hospitality of the people and places we venture. On this day, Sheriff Daniel Edwards treated us to lunch at La Caretta’s Restaurant in Amite. Needless to say, the food was delicious, the atmosphere was conducive to continued discussion of what we had learned thus far, and it prepared us for what was to come, the Parish Jail. At the jail, we met Stewart Murphy, Administrator of the Tangipahoa Parish Jail, who gave us a tour and explained the goings on of the facility. The jail holds 526 inmates of whom some are from the parish, some are with the Department of Corrections, and others are federal. They book about 7,000 offenders a year. The jail has five inmate labor crews that work throughout the parish and offer programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Bible Study, and courses to obtain a GED. The tour of the facility was “rough” in that it was a harsh reality of one aspect of our society that most of us are not familiar. One analogy expressed was feeling as if we were “fish food sprinkled in the water”, as we walked throughout the facilities, the inmates came and gathered against the windows gawking at us; in other instances, we felt as if we were in a fish bowl being examined. Regardless, it is an institution that is kept under tight-ship, is manned by professional men and women, and serves its purpose of detaining those who have done a criminal act.
Our day ended at the Tangipahoa Parish Substation where we met, Toby Aguillard, Sex Offender Supervisor, who educated us on Internet Safety, specifically in the area of teenagers and sexual predators. Mr. Aguillard expressed that there is a “true generation gap with protecting kids from the keyboard without guidance”. His statistics are alarming, the predator’s tactics are repulsive, the victims are innocent prey, and the harsh reality is that there is not much a parent can do to stop or prevent this. Generally, teenagers use the internet for communication, for playing games, and for homework; however, there are new developing dangers that we must be aware of such as: sexting, access to wireless internet, mobile devices, and social networking sites. The harsh reality is that there is nothing that can stop a sexual predator from trying to connect with a teenager, but there is value in being proactive in tracking child pornography as done by the Tangipahoa Sheriff’s office, where they are among the nation’s leading agencies for capturing predators.
As the day came to an end, we all walked away with a better understanding of the challenges that the criminal justice and law enforcement agencies are facing on a daily basis, a deeper respect for the different roles of authority and how they all work together—how they must work together, and a greater appreciation for the efforts of those in positions of authority, whether it is that of being a mentor or one who puts his or her life in harm’s way. Overall, the system is not perfect, but it strives to be the best that it can be by using its resources wisely, by making fair, sound decisions, and by having serious, well-trained professionals serving our parish, all for the betterment of our community.
In gratitude for jobs well done,