Demonstrators gathered outside City Hall in June to protest harsher juvenile justice policies announced by the city. Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

New Orleans City Council members on Thursday criticized the ongoing practice of detaining juveniles at the city’s adult lockup, saying it goes against city ordinances designating the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center — formerly the Youth Study Center — as the appropriate facility for juveniles, including those being charged as adults. 

There are currently 17 teenagers — ranging in age from 15 to 17 — being held in the juvenile wing of the adult Orleans Justice Center, according to Blake Arcuri, general council for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. Meanwhile, there are 18 available beds at the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center, according to Rachel Gassert, the policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. 

“I’m not sure why we’re here if we passed an ordinance that specifically dealt with this,” said a frustrated Councilwoman Kristin Palmer at a meeting of the Criminal Justice Committee. “There’s an ordinance that expressly states that children should not be incarcerated with adults, but we’re still doing it even though all the data says we shouldn’t and that we’re actually doing more harm to society as a whole.”

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 LaToya Cantrell voted in favor of both. As mayor, Cantrell has recently advocated for a more punitive approach to juvenile crime, calling for strict curfew enforcement and the transfer of more juveniles facing adult charges to the adult jail. 

The 2018 ordinance established “the Youth Study Center as the appropriate adult facility for the pre-trial detention of youth charged as adults.” The Youth Study Center was renamed the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center in June. 

The ordinance goes on to say that juveniles can be kept at the adult jail only if the juvenile detention center is at capacity. But, it stipulates that they must be transferred back to juvenile detention “as soon as a bed becomes available.”

But state law still allows judges in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court to transfer juvenile defendants to the adult facility, and they sometimes will do so when there is a request from a prosecutor on the case. 

Gassert said the arrangement has been for the center to provide 12 beds to juveniles being tried as adults, with the rest going to the adult jail.

But Gassert says that right now, only nine of those beds are being taken up even though there are teenagers in the Orleans Justice Center who could fill them. She said the reason could be the number of transfer requests the judges are receiving. According to a Cantrell’s communication director Beau Tidwell, the administration plays a role in deciding whether to submit a transfer request.

“These decisions are made in collaboration with the DA’s office, with input from the JJIC leadership and from the Criminal Justice Commissioner,” he wrote in an email.

The administration’s Criminal Justice Commissioner is Tenisha Stevens, who worked for the District Attorney’s Office as an investigator from 2003 to 2018. 

Last week, Cantrell and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro agreed to request transfers for two juveniles — one charged with armed robbery and the other with murder. 

Those requests followed an incident at the juvenile jail earlier this month involving several teenagers who allegedly barricaded themselves in a room and threatened guards and police officers, who were called in to respond. Cannizzaro, who has spent much of the past year advocating for a severe crackdown on juvenile crime, characterized the confrontation as a “riot situation.” Cantrell has disputed that. 

“That decision was made jointly by the DA’s team and the administration,” Tidwell wrote in the email. “The ultimate discretion lies with the judge in each case.”

Tidwell also sent a written statement attributed to Stevens.

“In instances where juveniles have been charged as adults, when they have committed serious violent offenses such as murder, when their presence or behavior could create a disruption or a danger to other juveniles or to staff — absolutely it is appropriate for them to be housed in the juvenile wing of Sheriff Gusman’s facility, which is a more high-security facility,” the statement  said.

At Thursday’s meeting, Gassert pushed back against that rationale. 

“I think that it is really worth remembering that in this country we have the presumption of innocence,” Gassert said. “Some of these children are absolutely innocent. It is a violation of their presumption of innocence that we presume to predict anything about their behavior in the facility based on what they’re charged with.”

Judges don’t want to be seen ‘flip-flopping’ 

In June, while responding to reports about overcrowding at the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center, Cantrell sent a press release calling for “moving quickly to transfer offenders being indicted as adults to a more appropriate facility,” apparently referring to the juvenile wing of the adult jail. 

“It was concerning to see the mayor call the adult jail the ‘appropriate facility,’ because it is completely inappropriate to keep children there,” Gassert told The Lens in June. “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.”

Cantrell, the NOPD, the Juvenile Court judges, and District Attorney Leon Cannizarro all said recent policy changes were a response to a recent upswing in juvenile crime. 

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

In fact, data compiled by crime analyst Jeff Asher show that although there were increases in juvenile arrests in 2017 and 2018, that trend has reversed this year. In late June, Asher told the Criminal Justice Committee that juvenile arrests for violent crime were down 25 percent from 2018. Arrests for non-violent crimes were down 36 percent. 

But one category of crime often attributed to juveniles has seen an increase this year: burglaries from cars. Those are up 84 percent from 2018, according to crime data maintained on the council website. The NOPD has said that car burglaries are “committed primarily by juveniles.” 

As Thursday’s presentation made clear, there is no longer a threat of overcrowding at the juvenile jail. But juveniles are still locked up in the adult facility. 

“So what do we do?” Palmer asked. “How do we bring them back?”

That would require orders from the judges assigned to the juveniles’ cases. But according to Stevens, that can be difficult because the judges don’t want to look like they’re “flip-flopping.”

“Talking to the judges at Criminal District Court when we met with them, they were of the opinion that they don’t want to be put in a position to keep flip-flopping,” she said.

Regardless of the judges’ concerns, Councilman Jason Williams said the city should be doing more to keep teens out of the adult jail.

“I’m not picking on Orleans Parish Prison. I’m saying that the science is well founded that it is not a place for children,” Williams said. “And this council has decided that the juvenile facility is the appropriate place.”

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...