Rochelle Odon from the organization Our Voice Nuestra Voz speaks at a City Hall demonstration against new juvenile justice enforcement measures. Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

A group of protesters gathered in front of New Orleans City Hall on Thursday to speak out against the city’s new, more aggressive approach to juvenile crime.

“When we start focusing on longer detention for kids, we start looking at curfew laws for kids, that’s investing in cages, not kids,” said Cameron Clark of the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of several organizations at a demonstration outside of City Hall Thursday morning.

“We can’t turn our back on the work we’ve already been doing for the community and for the black and brown kids in the city. Because we know they’re targeting black and brown kids,” he said.

The group was protesting what they saw as a surprising change in tone from Mayor LaToya Cantrell on juvenile crime over the past month, as city officials announced several new policies that take a more punitive approach.

Cantrell and the NOPD have started strictly enforcing the city’s curfew, first enacted in 1994, for kids younger than 17. Last week, the city’s Juvenile Court judges announced a policy change that could increase detention times for juvenile defendants, possibly including those accused of nonviolent crimes.

Last month, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro unveiled his eight-point plan for fighting juvenile crime, which included stricter curfew enforcement and increased Juvenile Court detention orders. The plan also calls for an end to the New Orleans Police Department’s federal consent decree, more prosecutors in the DA’s Juvenile Division and an expansion of the city’s juvenile jail, the Youth Study Center.

“We know from national data as well as what we’ve seen locally that kids in adult jails are more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted or die by suicide.”—Rachel Gassert, Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights

The decision to arrest and detain more juveniles poses a danger of crowding the 48-bed Youth Study Center. In response, Cantrell recently issued a press release calling for juveniles being charged as adults to be moved quickly from the Youth Study Center to a “more appropriate facility.” According to the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which acts as the city’s juvenile public defender’s’ office, the Mayor was referring to the city’s adult jail, the Orleans Justice Center.

LCCR Policy Director Rachel Gassert said six kids have been transferred to adult jail this week.

“It was concerning to see the mayor call the adult jail the ‘appropriate facility,’ because it is completely inappropriate to keep children there,” she told The Lens. “We know from national data as well as what we’ve seen locally that kids in adult jails are more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted or die by suicide. And of course, tragically, Jaquin Thomas died by suicide in the jail when he was just 15 years old in 2016.”

In 2015 and 2018, the City Council passed laws designating the Youth Study Center as the proper place to house juveniles being tried as adults. Then-Councilwoman Cantrell voted in favor of both. Previously, in 2014, she co-sponsored a resolution calling for the removal of all youth from the adult jail.  

The center has faced overcrowding issues for years. In April, the state citied the facility when it was found to be holding 50 juveniles, two above capacity.  The city broke ground on a 28-bed expansion last year.

Gassert is concerned that with new beds still unavailable, kids will continue to flow into the adult jail. And the recent transfers make Gassert nervous about how the new beds will ultimately be used.

“The city decided to build the expansion specifically to get every child and teen out of the adult jail,” she told The Lens. “The concern now is that once they open it and all of these new policies are in place, there just going to fill that new facility with children who are being tried in the juvenile system and the kids being tried in the adult system are still going to be held in adult jail.”

‘They’re brazen, and they have no fear’

Prior to formally releasing her juvenile crime plan, Cantrell mentioned stricter juvenile enforcement at a May 9 press conference. During it, Natasha Robin from Fox 8 asked Cantrell, “Is there a push for more detention time for these Juveniles?”

“Well absolutely,” Cantrell responded. “And there is a unified push actually, with sitting down with juvenile court judges.”

The press conference was called in response to a attempted auto burglary and shooting in Mid-City that resulted in the death of Zelda Townsend.

“That system did not make me better, that system actually hardened my heart even more.”—Kevin Griffin-Clark, Families and Friends of Louisiana Incarcerated Children

Police arrested Emanuel Pipkins as the suspected shooter after he went to University Medical Center with a bullet in his back, according to media reports. His girlfriend, Byrielle Hebert, was also arrested after she allegedly admitted to being in the getaway car. She is facing three charges including manslaughter, which can carry up to a 40 year sentence.

By the time of that press conference, Cannizzaro had been calling for a crackdown for months, referring to juvenile crime the “biggest local crime issue” of the year. The Townsend shooting appeared to move Cantrell in the same direction.

“They’re armed, this is serious, and they’re brazen, and they have no fear,” Cantrell said at the May 9 press conference in an apparent reference to juvenile car burglars and what she called an “uptick” in juvenile crime.

According to data compiled by crime analyst Jeff Asher, there was, in fact, a spike in juvenile arrests for violent and non-violent crime in 2017 and 2018. But the situation has improved this year. Asher’s data show the number of juveniles with violent charges are down 27 percent so far this year as compared to 2018, and down 31.6 percent for non-violent charges.

Still, a recent press release from Orleans Parish Juvenile Court referred to “an alarming increase in delinquent activity in our city.”

The Lens asked Juvenile Court Judicial Administrator Ranord J. Darensburg what that claim was based on.

“That’s not based on numbers,” he said. “That’s based on the judges, mostly Judge [Mark] Doherty, his impression of what’s been coming before him. The numbers I have is that what we don’t have is an uptick in violent crimes. The uptick is in other crimes. Violent crimes have remained the same and in fact are down.”

In an emailed statement, NOPD spokesman Gary Scheets said that the recent statistical change being cited is related to auto burglaries.

“NOPD has consistently referred to the large increase in the number of vehicle burglaries across the city – committed primarily by juveniles – as main driver of the current juvenile crime problem,” he said. “The vast majority of those crimes are committed late at night, when the curfew would be in effect.”

Neither Cantrell nor the District Attorney’s office responded to requests for comment for this story.

“There are reasons that arrest rates can fluctuate,” Gassert said. “It can be a change in policing practices, which can look like a change in where police are located. It can change based on policies and procedures within the police department.”

She added that the current policy changes will almost certainly raise the rates of arrest and detention for juveniles.

“As a young man I was in the Youth Study Center,” said Kevin Griffin-Clark with Families and Friends of Louisiana Incarcerated Children at Thursday’s demonstration. “That system did not make me better, that system actually hardened my heart even more. And it took our community from where I was from, it took my children, it took all of those people to help me on the right track. I know had I had a city that had my back, if I had public officials that had my back, I would have been better earlier.”

The Policies

Perhaps the most high-profile part of the plan has been the aggressive curfew enforcement. The curfew goes from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. In the French Quarter, the curfew starts at 8 p.m. every night.

Kids violating the curfew are sent to Covenant House until they can be picked up by a parent or guardian. If the child is picked up three times in a calendar year, their parents could be charged with a municipal offense.

The first year the curfew was enforced, 3,572 youths were picked up for curfew violations, according to a 2000 article in Justice Quarterly. Some child advocates worry about what that experience will do to a child.

“Any extra moment detained is harmful for the child,” Gassert said.

But Gassert is concerned about more than just curfew violations.

“With the curfew what we’re most worried about is the potential for more negative interactions between young people and the police, and the stigmatization of young people, especially black children,” she said.

She added that the curfew gives officers the pretext to stop more people, and not just juveniles. Older teenagers and even adults could be stopped and asked for an ID if they’re suspected of being under 17.

“Lots of kids don’t have IDs,” said Gassert. “I don’t know what would happen then. I don’t know what would happen if the kid refuses to be taken anywhere or runs away from the police or god forbid there’s an escalation and something serious happens.”

The changes announced by the Juvenile Court judges is also concerning to the advocates and lawyers at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.

When a juvenile is detained, the first step to determining their release begins with the risk assessment instrument. The instrument is akin to a survey, and takes factors such as the current offense, past charges, and history of missing court dates into account to create a total score. A score of 0-9 used to result in automatic release, while a score of 10 to 14 led to detention alternatives, and a score of 15 or higher triggered automatic detention.

But the Judges’ new policy will allow the court to keep children detained even if the risk assessment tool yields a low score. According to the press release, children arrested on “offenses that pose a risk to public safety will be held pending a probable cause hearing before a juvenile judge.”

Exactly what those offenses are is unclear. Gassert said that some juveniles have already had their risk assessment instrument scores overridden by judges.

“The vagueness of the policy is really concerning,” said Gassert. “If you’re saying offenses that pose a threat to public safety, what does that mean exactly and how will that be used? We have a tool to determine that already.”

According to Darensburg, the Juvenile Court Administrator, the intake officers will have the discretion to decide whether to call a judge on a certain case. The Judge will then decide whether the detained child should be released or detained until he can see a judge. As for what constitutes a threat to public safety, he didn’t have a comprehensive list, but said that pulling on car door handles will apply.

“These are the types of things that we now know can lead more serious stuff happening,” he said.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...