For the past four years, New Orleans has put its safety at risk by throwing away its future, sending more than 100 youth to be jailed and prosecuted as adults — children as young as 14 but mostly 15 or 16.
Young people who commit serious offenses should be held accountable in a way that takes into account their potential for change and everything we know about what actually makes us safer.
The Advocate’s March 29 articles demonstrate that, in the last four years in New Orleans, nearly every eligible 15- or 16-year-old arrested for committing an armed robbery — and even some youth charged with offenses like burglary — has been marked by the district attorney for criminal prosecution in a process known as “transfer.” Louisiana law allows transfer for children ages 14 to 16, and we’re one of only nine states that still prosecutes all 17-year-olds as adults. In most parts of the country, if you’re not old enough to enlist in the military, you’re also not mature enough to face life in prison.
In New Orleans, no judge has decided that adult prosecution is necessary or even appropriate for the vast majority of those youth. That’s up to the district attorney alone. We have seen indiscriminate adult prosecution of children with no prior arrest record, children with IQs that show they are significantly intellectually disabled and children who are deeply mentally ill.
Unfortunately, the only kind of discrimination apparent here is the wrong kind: Every single child prosecuted as an adult in New Orleans in the past four years has been African-American.
During pretrial detention at OPP — sometimes called “the worst jail in the country” — youth face dramatically increased risks of violence, sexual assault, mental illness and suicide. In criminal court, they face the same punishments as adults, including mandatory minimums and life sentences.
These youth spend their formative years incarcerated — often held in extended isolation to avoid contact with older inmates. When they are released, they face extraordinary obstacles in turning their lives around, including obtaining steady employment after being saddled with felonies before they are even old enough to vote.
Some might be willing to tolerate the discarding of these lives if it made us safer. But it doesn’t. To the extent that transfer policies are implemented to reduce violent or other criminal behavior, available evidence indicates that they do more harm than good.
Prosecuting children as adults has no deterrent effect. As The Advocate articles show, the DA’s Office has been transferring these cases for years, but it hasn’t reduced arrests for armed robbery. That’s not surprising. According to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, there has been no impact on juvenile crime rates in states where laws have changed to make it easier for prosecutors to prosecute youth in adult court.
Juvenile transfer also increases a young person’s risk of re-offending. A 2007 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that transfer results in increased risk of arrest for subsequent crimes, including violent crime, among youth who were transferred compared with those retained in the juvenile justice system.
Prosecuting youth as adults is counterproductive because the criminal justice system is not equipped to address the needs of adolescents. Nearly all youth convicted as adults will be returning to the community eventually — in New Orleans, most will come home within 10 years. But adult jails and prisons don’t have the therapeutic or educational services that young people need.
We don’t let 15-year-olds drive, sign contracts, vote or serve on juries. That’s because we don’t think they’re as capable as adults of making considered decisions with serious consequences. They’re immature — but they’re also capable of immense change.
We can keep children safe by keeping them out of adult jails. And we can keep our neighborhoods safe by reducing the chances that youth will commit new crimes by rehabilitating them in developmentally appropriate ways that reflect the fact that their brains are still developing. That’s what the juvenile justice system is for.
Rachel Gassert is the policy director for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, the policy reform arm of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.