Fixes Elude New Orleans' Juvenile Justice System

A handful of teenage inmates escaped from New Orleans' only juvenile-detention facility this weekend; five remain at large. Juvenile advocates had hoped that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina would provide a chance to redesign the much-maligned justice system. But how can the city improve treatment for young lawbreakers when so many city institutions remain broken themselves?

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MADELINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeline Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, weight problems in American schools and on fashion show runways.

BRAND: First, in New Orleans, five teenagers remain at large after escaping from the city's only youth detention center over the weekend. It's another setback for a juvenile justice system that was already on the ropes before Hurricane Katrina. Reformers say now is a good time to fix some of those longstanding problems. NPR's Molly Peterson reports.

MOLLY PETERSON: Ashley is a petite girl, 16 and stylish. She fixes her hair to look older than she is. A year ago, she was a repeat runaway in the city's juvenile detention, the youth study center. Katrina took out the power, so Ashley and the other kids were moved to the adult prison.

She says there the walls began to drip with sweat and the smells rose.

ASHLEY (Former Detention Center Detainee): Vomit, manure, urine, cigarettes -because they was smoking cigarettes. The floor was sticky. Everybody walking around with no clothes on, it was that hot. We was hungry. We ain't eat for five days, and plus I was pregnant. We juveniles. None of us was over the age of 16.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

PETERSON: Even with her 9-month-old baby girl Jayla(ph) on her knee, it's hard to take Ashley for a grownup. Evacuating with adult prisoners scared her. Many of those men, pictured on CNN in orange jumpsuits, became lost in the legal system. But kids like Ashley had hearings within weeks after the storm.

Juvenile Court Chief Judge David Bell says that's not an indicator of a healthy system. There were 5,000 juvenile arrests a year before Katrina. He says they clogged and broke his court.

Judge DAVID BELL (Chief, Juvenile Court New Orleans): Playing basketball in a schoolyard is criminal trespass. Standing still on the sidewalk is obstruction of a public passage. Sitting on their neighbor's steps in a housing development is trespass. I don't see how arresting someone for sitting on their neighbor's step reduces crime.

PETERSON: And with a budget that's been cut 85 percent since the storm, Bell says the court must spend the money it has carefully. That's why he and other juvenile court judges have set new guidelines for sentencing kids. Bell says detention, the most expensive of the punishments, should be used less.

Judge BELL: We determine whether to not this child is appropriate for incarceration, whether he poses a risk to the community, a risk to himself, a risk of re-offending, or a risk of failure to appear before the court.

PETERSON: New Orleans police have logged around 700 juvenile arrests in the last year. A huge drop Bell attributes to fewer people and the beginnings of reform. But Lieutenant Jerry Criter(ph) of the New Orleans Police Department says there's a different explanation.

Lieutenant JERRY CRITER (New Orleans Police Department): We don't have anywhere near the juveniles arrested that we had before. You know, but we just don't have the bed space, either.

PETERSON: New Orleans used to be able to hold more than 100 kids, most in the Youth Study Center. Now they've only got space for 20. Criter says officers don't bring in as many kids as they used to.

Lt. CRITER: A lot, a lot of arrests are being released on the street. A lot of them, because officers have gotten the word that we're just not working at, like we did before. We don't have jail cells. We don't have facilities that hold juveniles. When at all possible, they're releasing them on the street to the parents.

PETERSON: Kids accused of aggravated assaults, drug dealing or gun offenses, they go to the Youth Study Center, like Ashley did before the storm. But the city's Richard Winder, whose agency runs the facility, says most of that building is gutted now with no plans to open back up.

Mr. RICHARD WINDER (Director, Youth Study Center): I don't think there's a juvenile crime wave that would require us to open up 100 beds. The quicker you move those beds and empty those beds, it can work.

PETERSON: Winder says he supports the court reforms because they keep kids moving through the system. That way, they don't get too familiar with detention or how to escape it. Last Friday, kids in detention staged a fake fight to distract guards. Ten escaped from custody. The five still at large have charges ranging from possession of a stolen car to heroin and crack possession.

But Winder says, as with anything in this city, change takes a lot of work.

Mr. WINDER: You have to understand the kid a lot better than you did before. You have to do some better evaluation. You know, you just can't just send him out and not give him anything to do. What are you going to give him in lieu of keeping him in the Youth Study Center? What are you going to do for him?

PETERSON: The city's health and school systems are getting back on their feet. And Winder and Juvenile Court Judge Bell both say sentencing reform won't work without stronger social service programs, which they're also pushing for. In recent months, Ashley has been going to court each Monday, taking drug tests, meeting with her probation officer. With her neighborhood and school gone, she doesn't have much else to do.

ASHLEY: I just do whatever they ask me to do. Be home at 7:00. You know, I'm not tripping. I'm supposed to get out when I'm 18. I'm 16 now. Two more years.

PETERSON: Ashley doesn't expect to go to detention again, but if she does, she says she could handle it now if she had to.

Molly Peterson, NPR News, New Orleans.

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