When children end up in jail, their futures are bleak: Joshua Perry – NOLA.com

Joshua Perry is the executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, a nonprofit law office that defends the rights of children in Louisiana’s juvenile justice system.

When Hurricane Katrina landed, as many as 150 children — some as young as 10 years old — were being held at the Orleans Parish Prison.  The stories of how they were treated, then and in the difficult years after the disaster — stories of overcrowding, abuse, hunger, fear — drove reform of some parts of New Orleans’ juvenile justice system. 

But Katrina wasn’t the problem.  As early as 1997, The New York Times called our juvenile justice system the worst in the nation.  And the reforms that followed Katrina didn’t fix everything.  Not even close. 

We’re still holding children in Orleans Parish Prison, which has been called the worst large detention facility in the country.  Our juvenile justice system continues to arrest and prosecute far too many children, in both juvenile and criminal courts.  And the children who fall into the system are almost always poor and black.

It’s time to embrace a new set of reform commitments for our most vulnerable children.  We can keep our community and our children safe, and use taxpayer funds responsibly, by preparing vulnerable young people to be productive and successful adults instead of pushing them out of school, into jail, and into the criminal justice system. 

By some measures, our juvenile justice system is better today than perhaps ever before.  A post-Katrina lawsuit ended with an entirely rebuilt juvenile detention facility.  Pretrial detention populations are dramatically down. That is an unequivocally good thing, since pretrial detention of children is both expensive and unsafe.  The population of New Orleans youth committed to juvenile prison, which has been shown to increase recidivism and diminish life prospects for most young people, has fallen by more than 60 percent.  And a system nationally derided for unfair, assembly-line processing of children now has the nation’s only specialized juvenile public defender’s office.

But there are important areas where progress remains elusive and even some areas where we’re losing ground.

Racial bias remains the scourge of our juvenile justice system.  So far in 2015, 99 percent of New Orleans’ arrested youth have been African-American. That’s even worse than four years ago, when a Department of Justice investigation concluded: “The level of disparity for youth in New Orleans is so severe and so divergent from nationally reported data that it cannot plausibly be attributed entirely to the underlying rates at which these youth commit crimes, and unquestionably warrants a searching review and a meaningful response” from the New Orleans Police Department.  We’re still waiting on that response.

The problem of bias is in part about defaulting to arrest and prosecution for African-American children, when best practices suggest using safer and more cost-effective enforcement alternatives.  More than 20 percent of the cases handled by the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which serves as the city’s juvenile public defender, start off at school.  Those are mostly petty fights and disruptions that should never have led to arrest.  Kids are being prosecuted for offenses like throwing Skittles on school buses.

We’re also prosecuting far too many children as adults.  That’s bad for public safety: According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, prosecuting children in criminal court increases recidivism by 34 percent.   New Orleans suffers under a misguided prosecutorial policy of wholesale “transfer” – the prosecution of 14-, 15- and 16-year-old children in criminal court.  In most instances, transfer can happen at the prosecutor’s sole discretion, even for youth who are so mentally ill or developmentally-delayed that they can’t understand what it means to face life without parole in prison. 

And while our juvenile detention center is improved, we’re still holding some children at the Orleans Parish Prison.  Those are “transfer” youth and they’re also 17 year olds, who are automatically prosecuted as adults under Louisiana law – even though they’re considered children for every other purpose, from voting to buying cigarettes to mandatory school attendance. Forty-one other states have realized that it’s safer and most cost-effective to hold kids accountable in age-appropriate settings.

Young people at OPP routinely face the threat of violence and rape.  They are routinely deprived of adequate medical care.  The great majority of them have no access to high school education.

There has been some progress on that front.  In June, an interim City Council ordinance carved out 12 spots for transfer youth at the juvenile detention center.  But we need to close the deal.  The lessons of Katrina, and the difficult history of the jail both before and after the disaster, teach us that not a single child under the age of 18 should be held at the Orleans Parish Prison. 

The list goes on: Among other things, we need to focus on equity in public education, invest in strong mental health services, and do a better job of partnering and sharing information in our juvenile justice system. 

But we know that progress is both necessary and possible.  By our 300th birthday in 2018, New Orleans should be a national juvenile justice leader.  Our history in the past 10 years tells us that change is driven by commitment and perseverance.  It will be hard work.  Our children deserve it.