Jason Williams, pictured on July 22, 2020, takes questions from reporters after qualifying to run for district attorney. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

We are saddened by the deaths of all lives lost to violence. The prevention of violence and healthy development of children is at the heart of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children’s (FFLIC’s) mission. We take a systems transformation approach to our work, seeking to find holistic solutions to community violence. Consequently, our organization was roiled by the decision of New Orleans District Attorney, Jason Williams to try young people implicated in the violence as adults, once again.

We are infuriated by Williams’ decision to break his election promise to not try youth as adults. These feelings of anger and disappointment with a policymaker are not new and they are not just about this one District Attorney. Jason Williams is just an example of everything wrong with a system that continues to target the most vulnerable populations in our community: Black and brown youth. As a Black mother, this is personal. 

This backwards “justice” system perpetuates a cycle of harm, and policymakers are not held accountable to communities.  When children are punished as adults, more trauma is inflicted, and blame is shifted from the epic failures of the justice system to the youth most in need of help. So, to every policymaker who I have helped get elected with my vote and who has not done the right thing for our children, I want my vote back!

My frustration has been mounting for nearly twenty years, since Act 1225 was passed in 2003. The promises of that law have been left unfulfilled. The act was passed to transform Louisiana’s system into a model of holistic support for children and move away from its ineffective, punitive approach. But that hasn’t happened. The negative impacts of our systems and the failure of policymakers to fix them continue to perpetuate a vicious cycle of intergenerational harm, trauma, and violence. 

I see this harm continuing every single day. We live in a society that blocks access to opportunities for people of color, including education, mental health services, housing, and employment. Our criminal legal system is rooted in a history of violence against Black people. The institution itself was created to maintain systems of oppression and racism. 

To this day, in Louisiana, Black youth are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, even though we know that young people of all backgrounds and races engage in risky behavior at the same rate. While some children’s mistakes and behavioral infractions are handled by parents, teachers, and trusted adults with a loving and compassionate approach, Black and brown children, especially those in poorer neighborhoods, are targeted by the criminal legal system. 

I have served on the board of a predominantly white private school where I witnessed, first-hand, exactly how different the approach to supporting children versus punishing them can be. It was infuriating to know that what I fight for every day for our Black children, is offered so effortlessly in predominantly white and affluent communities.

Meanwhile, our children are pushed out of schools; targeted by the criminal legal system and then subjected to additional violence. Because the criminal legal system is rooted in racism and institutional violence, it is no surprise that Louisiana has a long history and pattern of abuse, neglect, sexual assault, and violence in its youth prisons. There are recent incident reports of riots, escapes, pepper spray, and even two suicides at one youth facility. And a 2018 legislative audit showed that the state was out of compliance with federal laws intended to protect incarcerated youth. Most recently, well-documented failures of the system have involved the inadequacy of care during the pandemic – including isolation, solitary confinement, lack of access to education and services, and the inability to connect with family.

There is no way to defend this racist, abusive, and ineffective system that is maintained despite its failure to rehabilitate youth or make the community any safer.  A longstanding and growing body of research shows that incarcerating youth can have extremely negative consequences for their ability to get back on the right track, which means that we aren’t giving them what they need to be productive members of society when they get out. Studies clearly demonstrate that contact with the justice system — instead of counseling and community supervision programs — increases the likelihood of criminal involvement. So, it’s beyond frustrating that our systems and policymakers continue to harm Black and brown youth under the guise of “protecting the community.” 

Our government has failed to truly make an effort to change this racist system of violence and abuse. Many of our policymakers do exactly what DA Williams has done — pledged that they would do something besides the status quo to make a difference. Instead, they have turned around and done exactly the opposite. Meanwhile, our youth of color are growing up in a society where institutional, structural, and interpersonal violence against them is normalized and accepted; and they internalize the message that they are disposable.

Government failures are numerous, beginning with the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission (JJRAIC) that failed to implement the reforms of Act 1225. The Children Youth and Planning Boards (CYPBs), which are supposed to coordinate the needed local support for our most vulnerable youth, have failed, too. The JJRAIC had never met until recently. Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children pushed a successful legislative effort to reconvene the commission.  The youth planning boards, which are statewide, are only functional in about five jurisdictions. In fact, there is a long list of agencies, commissions, and boards that are supposed to be supporting our youth, including Families in Need of Services (FINS). Sadly, their results are dismal.  

Louisiana ranks 50th in the economic well-being of its children and 49th in education. Seventy-three percent of Louisiana’s incarcerated children suffer from mental health challenges, and prison is the wrong place to meet their mental health needs.

I continue to feel appalled by the treatment of children, especially children of color, in Louisiana. I am simply fed up with those who continue to perpetuate this racist and oppressive system as well as the cycle of violence and harm done to our youth of color. If the juvenile justice system continues to perpetuate the myth of adolescents of color as super-predators, we will never end this cycle of harm.  We must meet our children’s basic needs and apply the solutions we know work for communities of privilege. We must support all children at the front end of their development with preventive, nurturing, and restorative practices that allow them to learn and grow from mistakes. 

In the words of James Baldwin, “…these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become.”

Gina Womack is the executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. FFLIC is Black, female-led, statewide, grassroots, multi-generational membership-based organization. The organization is committed to abolishing all forms of state violence against Black youth — especially in New Orleans — through transformative, organizing, holistic leadership development, and advocacy.

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at astelly@thelensnola.org.