New Orleans youth are not acting out because they are bad kids. Most are responding to their experiences, which have been mired in centuries of adversity and a noncaring world around them. Higher than national average rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression found in New Orleans youth since Katrina, coupled with increased police presence and severe punishment is a volatile combination. The Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies has found that more than 12 percent of young people in New Orleans have signs of depression and 20 percent screened positive for lifetime PTSD — compared with national rates of 9 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
While all 17-year-olds and some 15- and 16-year-olds are tried as adults in Louisiana, committing a crime is not an indication of increased maturity. It more often is a signal that young people need greater support to overcome substantial obstacles such as poverty and ongoing trauma. Individuals suffering from trauma and mental health issues need psychological support services, not criminalization and incarceration.
Exposure to violence can have a lifelong impact. We know that the adolescent brain is still developing and being shaped by its environment. Environment plays a large role in young people’s identity and decision making — a terrible time for experiences in any system of incarceration, much less the adult judicial system.
Orleans Parish Prison has continually been one of the most dangerous jails in the country with extremely high rates of rape, beatings and abuse. At its worst, OPP re-exposes to trauma young people who already are traumatized; at best it can only isolate, which in and of itself is traumatizing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found juveniles held in adult facilities are 34 percent more likely to be arrested again. The practice of holding youth in adult facilities increases rather than decreases recidivism — a process that’s harmful for children, families and public safety.
In January, Oliver Jerde, a white 22-year-old Tulane student, and son of a prominent architect in California, was booked on multiple burglary and assault charges in January. Instead of Orleans Parish Prison, he was sent to a mental facility for holding. Jerde was not charged by the District Attorney’s Office or indicted by an Orleans Parish grand jury. This accommodation for treatment needs should be extended to every individual involved in the criminal justice system. Far too often, people of color with mental illness and traumatic experiences are housed in OPP’s general population without access to psychological support services.
When young people act out, we should be as compassionate as possible while at the same time protecting the public. Our state has the chance to be a national leader in the appropriate and just treatment of young people accused of crimes by transforming the way we treat them. A caring society that nurtures its children, while preventing and healing their trauma, is possible in New Orleans. Eliminating transfers — or at least requiring a full case review by a juvenile court judge as proposed in Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s recent resolution — would be an important step in the right direction.
Denese Shervington is president and CEO of the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies in New Orleans.