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New Orleans Lowers Juvenile Crime

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New Orleans Lowers Juvenile Crime

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New Orleans Lowers Juvenile Crime

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Katrina washed away a lot in New Orleans. And about the only thing that came back fast and is flourishing is crime.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

There have been more than 130 homicides in New Orleans this year. The city's jails are some of the worst in the nation. And its criminal justice system barely functions, except for one small corner of the system, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court.

Unidentified Man #1: All rise. Orleans Parish Juvenile Court section C is now in session.

INSKEEP: On the bench is the Chief Judge David Bell. He's confronting a juvenile offender.

Judge DAVID BELL (Orleans Parish Juvenile Court): The question, Mr. (unintelligible), is why didn't you make your session on Wednesday at 4:30?

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)

Judge BELL: You understand you're ordered to go to drug court, right?

Unidentified Man #2: Uh-huh.

Judge BELL: All right. I don't know what uh-huh means.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, sir.

Judge BELL: Okay. That's better.

INSKEEP: In this part of our series on how New Orleans is coming back, we hear from one judge who's made a difference.

MONTAGNE: Two years on, Orleanians are balanced in a world that falls before Katrina and after Katrina. For those who know the juvenile justice system, the before presented an ugly picture. Detention centers that house 12, 14, 16-year-old kids were decaying. Fights were common. Guards were rough. And schooling was occasional. In the eight months before Katrina, some 5,000 juveniles - that is kids 16 and under - were arrested. On most nights scores of them slept in the city's detention centers. Damekia Morgan works with the advocacy group Friends and Family of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children. She says kids were picked up for things you wouldn't think anyone would be arrested for.

Ms. DAMEKIA MORGAN (Friends and Families of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children): Trespassing, going in a neighborhood where you're not supposed to be, standing on a corner in a crowd, pants sagging, you just look like you shouldn't be where, you know, your being - upset cop who just might want to pick with some kids, just different reasons.

MONTAGNE: And then Katrina hit.

Judge BELL: I think that Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst events that we all individually experienced. But I believe that for us as a system it was probably the best thing that ever could have happened.

MONTAGNE: Judge David Bell is talking to us from his chambers in juvenile court. For him, the hurricane swept out the old and allowed for anything new that he and other judges could make happen. New Orleans was still under water when Bell brought the judges together in Baton Rouge ready to start a better system from scratch, beginning by clearing out a backlog of cases, 26,000 in all, going back years.

Judge BELL: This was a lull. From August through January there were no new cases coming in. We had people that were committed to children that were willing to come in and volunteer their time. And we had volunteer law students come in from law schools all across the country who went through each of those files with us, sorted the kids, found the families. And so we were literally able to close out about 12,500 of those cases.

MONTAGNE: But don't forget the kids that maybe it's not about reuniting with mom and dad, that really they're bad kids.

Judge BELL: Yeah. When we looked at our system, we realized that we were breeding criminals. You know, we were doing just the most asinine thing in the world. And we were taking the kids that were picked up on a curfew violation, on a truancy violation and we were putting those kids in lockup with the kids that were there for attempted murder, for armed robbery. And you know, if a child got picked up on a Friday for a curfew violation, they sat in jail with these other kids until Monday morning when they before a judge. And so, you know, that was long enough to create a friendship and to exchange cell phone numbers. And so then we'd see these kids that were curfew violators that then became simple assaults that then became aggravated batteries.

MONTAGNE: So now, now what happens exactly?

Judge BELL: What we did is we brought in the district attorney, the public defender, the New Orleans Police Department and the judges, and we said, hey, let's determine what kids should be detained. And we determined - there was a criteria, kids that committed a violent crime against a person, kids that committed a crime while in possession of a weapon, and kids that were in possession of a large quantity of illegal substances.

But in order not to detain kids, we had to have alternatives because we have to preserve public safety as well. And so we started going to foundations and looking for money to help us fund alternatives to detention. We were able to create a house arrest program. We were able to create youth advocates whose responsibility it is to stop in on the kids three to five times a day to verify that they're up for school, that they're not causing problems at school. We were able to fund mental health liaisons to address the mental needs of the child. And we believe that because they are being released with these alternatives post-Katrina, we're getting the better result that we're getting. And the reality is, juvenile crime is down 84 percent.

MONTAGNE: That is a stunning statistic. It's partly because the population was cut in half right after Katrina and has climbed up slowly since. It's partly because police no longer arrest younger teenagers for truancy and other minor infractions. And according to one criminologist who studies crime in New Orleans, it's partly because youthful criminals get away. Peter Scharf now teaches criminal justice at Texas State University.

Dr. PETER SCHARF (Texas State University): The issue is what do you do with the 120-odd murders in New Orleans, and we really don't know what percentage of these murders are committed by juveniles because we don't catch anybody. Last year there were, you know, 161 murders and two trials, so most of the cases are unresolved. So are there kids that this very fine system is missing? And I think the answer is yes.

MONTAGNE: Still, Peter Scharf credits New Orleans' newly transformed juvenile justice system with helping kids who are not hardened. And the goal of keeping kids from becoming criminals is at the heart of these reforms, a goal no one believes in more than Judge David Bell.

Do you have some sympathy for these kids? Do you have an empathy for them? Because you yourself had to struggle a bit as a kid, didn't you?

Judge BELL: Well, yeah. My mother had me when she was 16 years old. She left me at the hospital. My grandmother raised me. You know, I failed the first grade. I was in special education through the fourth grade. I couldn't read until the eight grade. So you know, when I see these kids, I see me. You know, these kids that are arrested. I've been arrested. You know, these kids don't have hope. There was a time that I didn't have hope. So I certainly have empathy for them.

MONTAGNE: What was it that turned you around?

Judge BELL: At every phase of my life there was one adult that paid attention. Early on it was my grandmother. You know, when I started school, it was my first grade teacher, Ms. Mayo. First grade teacher the second time I was in first grade, I guess I should say. But at every phase of my life, there was one adult that took the time to care and to try to make a difference. You know, it sounds corny, but that's really all kids need.

MONTAGNE: If Judge David Bell is looking to be that one adult for the many kids who show up in his courtroom, in a system that works for them, then people in New Orleans say he succeeding. The challenge now is to keep these programs going. Like many other New Orleans institutions, much of juvenile court's budget is federal emergency Katrina money. That money runs out next spring.

INSKEEP: Our series continues tomorrow with a man who's come to New Orleans to fix a system that is still broken, the public schools.

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