Guest commentary: Keep juveniles away from adult jails _lowres

Ann Rabin

Over the past decade, Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, through the efforts of its Criminal Justice Committee, has advocated for effective support for pre-adjudicated detained youth and their families. We have partnered with other organizations and stakeholders within the juvenile justice field to ensure proper care of youth, prior to their case being heard in court. Our primary concerns are supervision, safety and other services as required by law for those in custody.

A series of articles recently published in The Advocate (“Officials aim to move juveniles out of OPP” and “Orleans has highest rate of transfers in state”), highlighted the fact that the transfer of children to adult jails is not a new practice in New Orleans. However, although it has not reduced the incidence of violent offenses in the last three years, New Orleans has put its future at risk by housing more than 100 children as young as 14, but most are 15 and 16 — in Orleans Parish Prison. Young people, including those who are charged with committing serious offenses, should be held accountable in a way that takes into consideration their potential for change. A balanced, common-sense approach that will actually deter youthful offending and reduce recidivism is needed.

At OPP, a jail with national notoriety and under a federal consent decree for its conditions, no separate and designated beds for youth have been made accessible. Exposure to the adult population in OPP dramatically increases the risks of violence, sexual assault, mental illness and suicide.

Some detainees spend their formative years awaiting trial at OPP. In some instances, young people may be held for an extended time in isolation to shield them from contact with other detainees or the adult population. They learn how to survive instead of learning to become productive members of society. OPP does not provide required and educational services beyond a few hours each week. All children in Louisiana, including those who are incarcerated, are entitled to an education, according to La. R.S. 17:221, and amended by La. Acts 411 (HB407). Education is mandatory for youth who are younger than 18, and youth between the ages of 18 and 21 who have not yet attained a high school diploma, or its equivalent, are also entitled to an education (La. R.S. 17:221).

Orleans Parish has recently completed a new Juvenile Justice Complex, including housing for preadjudicated youth with educational programming taught by certified Orleans Parish School Board teachers. This facility, with trained staff and adequate supervision for the current population, follows national best practices for housing youth. However, transferring youth now being held in OPP to the Youth Study Center will require the necessary resources, including staffing, programs, health and mental health services, education and essential daily needs.

Children do not belong in adult jails. Our neighborhoods will be safer by reducing the chance that youth will commit new crimes by intervening in age-appropriate ways for their still-developing adolescent brains. We must work to ensure that those who do “fall through the cracks” are given a chance to return to our community as productive members.

Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans and other civic organizations involved in juvenile justice and the safety of our citizens support efforts to limit and, as a long-term objective, cease transferring preadjudicated children to adult jails and provide the necessary services, as required by law.

Ann L. Rabin chairs the Criminal Justice Committee of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans.