Recently, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro denounced a resolution from the New Orleans City Council seeking information on how his office makes decisions on transferring young offenders from the juvenile justice system to the adult justice system.
However, the City Council has good reason for their concerns. Since Mr. Cannizzaro took office in 2009, the proportion of youthful offenders tried as adults in Orleans Parish has increased dramatically.
Although his office refuses to release detailed statistics on this issue, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that between 2011 and 2014, more than 80 percent of youths who could have been adjudicated in the juvenile justice system were transferred to the adult system, a rate of transfer much higher than any other Louisiana parish. The DA’s record on youth transfers is troubling for two main reasons.
First of all, his practice of treating an increasing proportion of youths as adults likely is making our community less safe. Considerable research has shown that young people who are kept in the juvenile justice system, rather than transferred to adult court, are less likely to commit subsequent crimes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, conducting studies that controlled for both type of crime and the offender’s background, found that keeping a child in the juvenile justice system decreases recidivism by 34 percent.
Another reason why the DA’s transfer policy is so problematic is the message it sends to the rest of our community, especially to our young people, that our most troubled and traumatized youths are not worth saving.
Pope Francis has frequently denounced a “throwaway culture” that ruthlessly discards human beings not considered useful in a modern society where everything and everyone is considering disposable.
By channeling so many of our troubled youth into the adult criminal justice system, the message has become: “They’re not worth saving. They are disposable.” Because life is sacred and every human being is endowed with an inalienable dignity, society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.
Youthful offenders, many who themselves have been traumatized by violence and abuse, have a much greater chance at rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system.
When determining the fate of young offenders, decision makers at all levels of our criminal justice system would be wise to consider the words of Pope Francis: “We must never allow the throwaway culture to enter our hearts, because we are all brothers and sister. No one is disposable.”
Fred Kammere, SJ, JD
director, Jesuit Social Research Institute, Loyola University New Orleans