Orleans Parish Juvenile Court will remain closed until at least April 13 and likely longer depending on instructions from the Gov. John Bel Edwards and Mayor LaToya Cantrell, according to the Judicial Administrator Ranord Darensburg.
Under a previous March 18 closure order, the court had been scheduled to reopen this week. Chief Judge Candice Bates Anderson issued an order on Wednesday extending it to April 13.
Even without normal court hearings, juvenile defendants have continued to be released from detention, but 27 remained locked up as of Wednesday.
The current length of the closure coincides with the original end date for the stay at home order the governor issued on March 22, but the governor has since said he would extend the end date to April 30. Darensburg said while he had heard that, he hadn’t received official confirmation, which was why the current court closure only goes until April 13.
“We don’t have anything in writing,” Darensburg said.
The court closed on March 19 due to exposure to the coronavirus from two individuals who had entered the court and later tested positive. Prior to the realization of direct exposure, the court had planned to stay open, despite other New Orleans courts closing days earlier.
At the time of the closure, there were concerns from attorneys at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (LCCR) that with the court closed there would be no mechanism for children to be released from the juvenile detention facility. At the time, the judges had decided that unlike other courts in the city, they would not proceed with videoconference and telephone hearings. In addition, there was initially no way for a child to post bonds.
Prior to the court closure, LCCR had already been pushing for a reduction in the New Orleans juvenile jail population due to the risk of coronavirus spreading in the facility.
“Like adult jails and prisons, juvenile facilities are inherently high-risk environments where the disease can spread quickly,” the letter read. “Children are housed closely together in units or dormitory-style housing, precisely the kind of conditions that have led to the closure of universities all over the country. Even in well-run facilities, the social distancing recommended by the CDC is simply impossible.”
The Office of Juvenile Justice has reported that four children in custody throughout the state have tested positive for coronavirus.
On March 20, Juvenile Court Chief Judge Candice Bates-Anderson told The Time-Picayune/ New Orleans Advocate that children would be released at her discretion, and that there were no kids being locked up that were eligible for release.
“I monitor every single kid that comes in, and thus far I feel that the kids that have come in represent a danger to themselves and others in our community,” she said.
Since then, however, the juvenile jail population has reduced by at least 15 people. Darensburg said that on March 24 the juvenile jail population was 42, and as of April 1 it was 27.
Some of those releases of children came by order from a judge, while others were able to bond out after the court set up an electronic system for bond payments. More recently, the court has offered the option of in-person bond payments by appointment.
Aaron Clark-Rizzio, the Executive Director of LCCR, said that while he is glad to see the reduction in the juvenile jail population, he is frustrated by the lack of leadership at the court to keep operations moving smoothly amid the crisis.
“It obviously promotes the safety of both the people on the inside and the outside,” he said. “The rate at which it’s happening was needlessly slow.”
“I think it is notable that the court shut down, they had no mechanism in place for bond-setting,” he said. “I think what that demonstrates is that even when we are moving in a better or more appropriate direction, it is being done at a slow pace, there is a lack of organization and coordination.”
There have still been no detention hearings since the court closed. At a press conference two weeks ago, Mayor LaToya Cantrell urged the court to adopt video conferencing.
“Our administration will continue to work with our Juvenile Court leadership on a virtual system,” Cantrell said on March 20, shortly after the court leadership had said it would not move to a virtual system.
LCCR said that there are currently four children in custody who were admitted to the city’s juvenile detention center the weekend before court closed and have not yet had a detention hearing. Hearings normally need to take place within 3 days of an arrest, but a proclamation signed by the Governor last week suspended all legal deadlines.
Darensburg said the court was ready to move to virtual hearings, but the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office and the jail were slowing down the process. Darensburg said the problem at the jail was a matter of equipment. He did not elaborate on the DA’s office.
“We’re ready,” Darensburg said. “We’re not the holdup. Honestly, the DA has a problem, and the jail has a problem. We’re ready.”
A spokesman for DA Leon Cannizzaro not respond to a request for comment.
“The jail thinks that they don’t want to use laptops because it could be a projectile and the kids could throw it somewhere,” Darensburg said. “So they are looking to have something mounted to a wall.”
Clark-Rizzio said that while the mayor’s office was providing helpful guidance, people within the juvenile justice system “need to be stepping up in this moment.”
“The judges should be playing a more proactive role in convening the system actors and identifying problems and overcoming them,” he said. “I don’t believe there’s a sense of urgency that there should be.”