Teneé Felix speaks at a press conference announcing her appointment as Juvenile Division chief of the DA's office. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

New Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams has brought on Teneé Felix — a former staff attorney at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (LCCR), which serves as the juvenile public defender in New Orleans — as chief of the DA office’s Juvenile Division. Williams announced the decision at a press conference on Wednesday morning outside of the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center.

“Chief Felix is a respected youth advocate who has spent her entire career of nearly 20 years in the service of children,” Williams said at the press conference. “She is absolutely the right person to advance our work of delivering justice in this space, and increasing safety in this city.”

The appointment of Felix, Williams said, will further his office’s commitment to pursuing a less punitive approach to juvenile justice than his predecessor — by expanding community intervention services such as mental health and addiction treatment, and relying less on incarceration.  Williams has vowed to “disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline,” a term used to describe policies — such as harsh disciplinary measures and increased law enforcement presence in schools —  that make it more likely for kids to become involved in the criminal justice system at a young age, and remain there into adulthood. 

Felix graduated from Loyola law school in 2006. She began working for LCCR in 2009. While Williams campaigned for DA last year, Felix was mounting her own campaign for juvenile court judge. 

One of her opponents in that race was the person she will be replacing as head of the juvenile division  —  Niki Roberts, who served in the position under Williams’ predecessor, Leon Cannizzaro.  Felix came in third place behind Roberts and Ranord Darensberg in the November primary. Darensburg won in the December runoff. 

“She ran on a very specific and important platform,” Williams said of Felix at the press conference. “Holding kids accountable in developmentally appropriate ways, with fairness and humanity rooted in all her decisions and work.” 

Felix stressed the need for community partnerships to  keep kids out of the criminal legal system in the first place. 

“My priority, as DA Williams said, is to make sure that a juvenile’s first time in this court system is their only time in the court system,” she said. 

Prior to being elected DA, in addition to serving as a New Orleans City Council member, Williams worked for decades as a criminal defense attorney, and Felix is the latest in a series of hires that has brought lawyers who have spent their careers arguing against prosecutors in court to the new DA’s office. 

Shortly after his election Williams announced that Emily Maw, former director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, would be leading his office’s Civil Rights Division. And earlier this month, he hired Ben Cohen, a civil rights attorney who was the attorney of record in Ramos v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court case that last year determined non-unanimous jury verdicts were unconstitutional, as his Chief of Appeals. 

On Wednesday, Williams pushed back on the notion that there had previously been enough alternatives to incarceration for kids who have been charged with crimes. 

“If you talk to any judge in this building and ask him what the options were for a young person coming through this building for the past 12 years, they’ll explain to you that there was either a demand for jail, or nothing,” Williams said. “Those aren’t options.”

He said that with his election, and with the appointment of Felix as Juvenile Division chief, that would change. 

“We have not tried programs, we have not tried interventions,” Williams said. “This process started January the 11th. This process starts in earnest with this chief coming in and putting into place a continuum of intervention services, whether it’s dealing with mental health, whether it’s dealing with trauma, whether it’s dealing with addiction. We’re building this now. This has not existed for our young people.”

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...