Recently, I attended a showcase at the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center, where this city’s arrested youth are held pre-trial. I was invited by artist Journey Allen, who directs youth education for the Young Artists Movement (YAM), the citywide mural initiative that I helped to found eight years ago.

To present the showcase, JJIC set up stations in the gymnasium. Keep in mind that arrested juveniles are often said to be disinterested youth who cannot be put on a better path. But what I saw was much different in that. I saw young people interested in mural art, which Journey taught them. I watched them tap into a music project with Daryl Dickerson, who heads up music education at the Ellis Marsalis Center. They learned how to pilot a drone from Kelvin Gipson, the IT program manager with Delgado Community College.

The teenagers also were enthusiastic about yoga, taught by high doula Delise Hampton from Spectrum Arts NOLA. And they made a few steps toward working through some of their trauma with arts therapist Holly Wherry Founder/Executive Director Whole Village Art Therapy.

I watched the kids interact. And it struck me. What choices do we want for our kids: a paint brush, an iPad or a Glock?

Arthur Hunter

To find opportunity and therapy, young people should not have to go to jail.

Incarceration is much more expensive than prevention. To hold one adult for one year, costs the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office an estimated $47,513.

But if we want to reduce crime and increase education and economic opportunities for our young people, then we must focus on prevention.

That takes thinking outside the box and making proactive moves, by putting four neighborhood entities on the same page: playgrounds, schools, churches and community policing.

Here’s what we need to do:

1. Expand the New Orleans Recreation Department. We have to remake NORD into a year-round, youth-centered destination. To do that, we must invest in a range of programs and afterschool programs, from sports, art, music, STEM, conflict resolution and improving reading, writing and math skills. Then end with a healthy meal, everyday. We already have a strong framework of devoted volunteer NORD coaches, who know their players and their needs, in school and at home.

2. Partner with the schools and churches, especially churches with classrooms and kitchens, to utilize their facilities for kids, but also for parents, who could study in their own neighborhoods for their HiSET test, today’s version of the GED.

3. Work with schools to ensure that they have all the social workers, interventionists, and support staff that their teachers need to help all children, especially those with special needs. This, too, requires investment, to ensure that all children can work through this city’s prevalent trauma, read at grade level, practice critical thinking skills, and learn skilled trades and technology in high schools.

4. Institute community policing in neighborhoods. As a former member of the Urban Squad, working in the city’s housing developments, I know that police officers who know their communities are better able to sense when something is wrong. And when a crime happens, they are more likely to be able to solve it, through tips from neighbors.

At JJIC, I watched the faces of detained children light up as they picked up paintbrushes, programmed iPads to make musical beats, flew drones, tried yoga stances, and were introduced to art therapy.

With the recent criminal-law changes in Baton Rouge, we have even more of a responsibility to show our kids another path.

We can either play chess or checkers, be proactive or reactive, think outside the box or continue the same old politics, expecting different results. When it comes to our kids, it’s time to play chess.  As a former judge in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, I’ve seen how young people can move their life’s chess pieces forward, one move at a time. Or they can make a bad move and be swept off the board altogether.

Arthur Hunter is a former New Orleans Police Department officer and a former judge at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.