Juanita Allen didn’t even have bus fare — she had to walk all the way from her home in the Lower 9th Ward to the courtroom at Tulane and Broad. So making bail for her 15-year-old son was out of the question.

But Allen was devastated at the idea that her slim teenager could end up in the notorious Orleans Parish Prison, sometimes called the worst jail in the nation.

She broke down sobbing that day in May, to the point where Criminal District Judge Julian Parker asked her to be strong for her son.

“He said that, by me crying, I wasn’t doing anything but making him weak,” Allen said.

Allen tried to pull herself together out of respect for the judge. But still, the tears rolled down her cheeks.

“They wanted to put my son in Parish Prison at 15,” she said. “That’s not a place for no child.”

Each year, dozens of New Orleans parents grapple with similar concerns as their teenage children face the prospect of being tried as adults. The practice, called juvenile transfer, has long been allowed under Louisiana law for youths 14 and older, but until recent years, it was seldom used in Orleans Parish.

Before Hurricane Katrina, only occasionally was a teen under 17 transferred to adult court, and then typically only if the offender was charged with murder or another heinous violent crime. The law considers anyone 17 or older to be an adult.

Now, the practice is commonplace. Nearly six years of court and custody records obtained by The New Orleans Advocate show that District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro consistently moves defendants accused of a range of serious crimes out of Juvenile Court and into the adult criminal justice system. Most, like Richard Allen, are 15 or 16 and accused of armed robbery.

“When dealing with crimes of violence, the DA believes that a 16-year-old armed robber is no less dangerous than a 20-year-old armed robber,” spokesman Chris Bowman said.

But the practice has sparked a litany of recent concerns among youth advocates, largely because all teen offenders charged as adults are now awaiting trial at OPP, a facility so plagued with violence and chaos that the federal government stepped in and mandated reforms through a consent decree.

Over the past month, every single juvenile facing adult proceedings in New Orleans has been moved from the city’s juvenile facility, called the Youth Study Center, to a juvenile tier at OPP.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office did not respond to a question about why the teens were moved out of the city-run facility.

In general, teens in adult jails are more likely to be victimized, said Krista Larson, director of the Center on Youth Justice for the Vera Institute.

“Housing minors in adult settings leads to alarming rates of sexual and physical abuse and higher rates of suicide,” Larson said, adding that a number of states are taking a hard look at whether they should be housing juveniles in adult facilities.

Katie Schwartzmann, lead attorney on the lawsuit that led to the federal consent decree, said also troubling is the fact that conditions for youth housed at OPP have not improved despite progress in other areas.

“As was the case three years ago, there are still not enough deputies in jail to keep people safe,” Schwartzmann said. “There is still no place in OPP to house suicidal youth, so they are sent to be housed with suicidal adults. And there is still no place to house kids who are attacked, so they are held in locked cells 23 hours a day.”

Schwartzmann said OPP has no youth programs and little provision for education, and she cited research showing the damage that solitary confinement can do to the still-developing brains of teens and to the youths’ psychological health.

“The psychological effects of housing youth in a jail like this are devastating,” she said.

Making the transfer

In May, despite the fact that Richard Allen was being charged as an adult, Parker ruled that he could be held at the city-run Youth Study Center in Gentilly.

Just a few years ago, Parker didn’t have that option. State law required that juveniles charged with adult crimes be held in adult jails, like OPP. But in 2012, the Legislature amended the Louisiana Children’s Code to allow judges to remand those teens to juvenile facilities instead.

At first, Juanita Allen’s daughter gave her a ride to Gentilly every Sunday so she could spend her allotted 30 minutes with her son. If she could afford it and if he’d made it to a certain disciplinary level — which he usually did — she brought him chicken from the Manchu Food Kitchen in the 7th Ward, one of his favorites. Sometimes a grandchild or an aunt came along, mobbing her son with hugs and encouraging him about his chance of beating his armed robbery charge. When the center cut Sunday from its weekend visiting schedule, Allen could no longer go every week, because her daughter works on Saturdays.

Lawyers warned Allen that her son’s trial date was likely a year away, and she hated for him to be gone that long. But at least she felt he was safe in the Youth Study Center, she said.

Then, last month, all that changed.

During an October court hearing, an assistant district attorney asked that Richard be placed in OPP because of “bad behavior” reported by Youth Study Center administrators. The judge granted the request, though Juanita Allen said she had talked with the staff at the Youth Study Center whenever she visited and they were largely complimentary about her son.

In fact, all juveniles charged as adults have been moved from the Youth Study Center to OPP within the last month.

Members of the City Council, deeply concerned, recently questioned why the teens should be held in OPP under conditions that, as Councilman Jason Williams put it, “are unconstitutional even for adults.” Williams, LaToya Cantrell and Susan Guidry introduced a successful resolution asking the city and Sheriff Marlin Gusman to take “any and all necessary steps” to move the transferred youths back to the Youth Study Center.

Sheriff’s Office officials did not testify before the council because they don’t take a position on where juvenile offenders should be held, said spokesman Philip Stelly, who echoed Gusman’s long-held position that, as the city’s jailer, he locks up the inmates he’s given. “We hold everyone sent to us lawfully,” Stelly said.

Landrieu agrees with the council in principle and has appointed a nine-member working group to study the issue. It will convene for the first time on Tuesday, mayoral aide Eric Granderson said. The group, which includes Williams and Guidry, youth advocates and judges, plans to examine “what we agree is an undesirable situation,” Granderson said.

Mayoral spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford said the working group will determine “whether it is feasible to remove all youth from Orleans Parish Prison and house them at an alternative facility.” If so, it will determine a suitable time line and budget for the move.

The city’s ongoing jail-size squabble also complicates the issue. To bring the new jail into compliance with federal standards set by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, transferred youths must be kept completely separate from adults, in two of the jail’s 60-bed pods. That means 120 total beds would have to be designated for youths, one for boys and one for girls.

If any children must be kept in protective custody, as outlined by the recent Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights report, that would put even more strain on the jail’s limited bed space. “Inmates in protective custody must be held separately from the general population. (So) if even one girl and one boy were in protective custody, the sheriff would need to designate 4 pods — or 240 beds — to house a handful of children,” the report said.

In essence, continuing to house transferred youth in OPP puts the city one step closer to building a long-discussed third phase for the jail.

Richard Allen’s case

Richard Allen was 15 when he was arrested in February in an armed robbery. That morning, he and his mother had argued about him playing hooky. Richard left upset.

His mother had begun to cook dinner while she waited for his return. Then her doorbell rang. There stood an NOPD detective with an arrest warrant for Richard. Another officer stood behind him.

She looked out into her alley and saw a line of NOPD officers, whom she invited inside. She called Richard’s sister, who was able to reach her brother and gave him a ride to NOPD’s juvenile bureau, where he turned himself in.

It was his first brush with the law, and it was frightening, his mother said. But he said he didn’t do it, and Juvenile Court Judge Tammy Stewart did not find probable cause for the charges to advance because of a lack of evidence.

At first, Juanita Allen didn’t know what to think about her son’s arrest. “Them kids be out there. You don’t know what they be doing,” she said. She told Richard flatly that if he’d robbed someone, he’d be best off to plead guilty and “take his lick” in prison. But he contended that he didn’t do it.

It is unclear from the NOPD’s incident report whether the alleged victim in the case was from Texas or New Orleans East. But the report describes how just after noon on a school day in January, the man met Richard, dressed in his school uniform, in the Central Business District.

The man asked Richard if he knew a store that would buy his cellphone. Richard walked the man to a cellphone store on Canal Street, where the man sold his phone and then gave Richard some cash for his help. That’s on the store’s video camera, said Juanita Allen, who saw the video during a court hearing.

A few blocks away, on Common Street, according to the incident report, the man was robbed at gunpoint by four young men who took a second iPhone, a duffel bag and $150 in cash.

According to the incident report, the witness said he was too “in shock” to report the incident to the NOPD until the next day. The narrative also notes that the witness didn’t respond to detectives’ phone calls, didn’t show up for appointments and failed to respond for nearly a month to the detectives’ email message asking him to identify his assailant from a photo lineup.

But when the victim did respond by email in April, he typed “2,” the number of Richard’s photograph, and that moved the case forward to district court.

No one else has been arrested for the crime. The incident report notes that Richard was identified by school officials after NOPD detectives saw his Cohen uniform shirt in the video.

During an early hearing, Judge Parker asked the prosecutor why Richard Allen would rob a man who had just put money in his pocket. Though Allen’s defense attorney wouldn’t talk about the details of his case, his mother said the prosecution’s theory seems to be that Richard set up the other robbery.

The transfer process in Louisiana relies upon one legal standard. If a Juvenile Court judge finds probable cause, the district attorney can automatically transfer that defendant to adult court.

Because the Juvenile Court judge didn’t find probable cause, Richard was released. His mother hoped the experience would shake him into attending school more often. At first, he did. But soon, she felt him slipping again. She requested that a school bus pick him up and take him Uptown to Cohen College Prep. But he began getting RTA bus tokens instead. Sometimes, she would walk with him to the bus in the morning and watch him board it. But then she’d receive a call from the school notifying her that he was playing hooky.

Then, in May, Juanita Allen got a call from Orleans Parish public defender Chanel Long. He told her that the District Attorney’s Office, which disagreed with the Juvenile Court’s decision, had decided to bring the armed robbery charges to a grand jury, which had indicted Richard as an adult.

At that point, no one — not even the district court judge — can send the case back to Juvenile Court. Richard Allen was no longer a child in the eyes of the law.

A decade ago, Allen’s case probably would have remained in Juvenile Court. There, even if the juvenile judge had found probable cause and he was found guilty, the maximum sentence he would have faced was imprisonment until age 21 in a juvenile facility focused on rehabilitation.

But today, Allen and other juvenile armed robbery suspects are much more likely to be tried as adults. And the stakes are much higher in Criminal District Court. If Allen is found guilty, he could get up to 99 years in prison.

The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights has tracked outcomes for transferred prisoners and found that 38 percent of transferred youths are released after being found not guilty or sentenced to probation. According to the data, for those convicted, the average sentence is 11 years.

OPP vs. YSC

Richard is being held in OPP’s Templeman V building, on the medical tier, to address a health issue. But most juveniles are held in the Conchetta building. Some are kept in protective custody, locked in their cells 23 hours a day. The rest spend the day on the tier — a common area outside their cells — where they sit with nothing to do. Education toward a GED is provided once a week.

Allen hates that her son may be inactive and falling further behind in school. But her primary fear is that he could fall victim to violence.

Richard makes a collect call to his mother a few nights a week to let her know he’s all right. Sometimes, if her money is tight, the call is just long enough for her to know he’s OK.

He’ll say, “Mama, I love you.” She’ll say, “I love you, too.”

She frets about Richard’s safety in OPP if she doesn’t get those calls. But the cost of the collect calls is about $20 a week, money she shifted from her Entergy bill, which is now on the verge of being cut off.

During Richard’s four-month stay in the Youth Study Center, Allen’s $734 monthly budget was largely unaffected. The facility provided weekly visits, kept him busy and in school, provided everything he needed and allowed him to call her for free at certain times.

But just a few years ago, the YSC also was quite troubled. It was a dank temporary facility on Milton Street that had been heavily damaged by 2005’s floodwaters and was widely criticized for lax management that led to injuries, escapes and general mayhem.

In 2007, the nonprofit Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (now the legal arm of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights) filed a class-action lawsuit outlining the facility’s unconstitutional conditions. Detained juveniles complained of moldy and vermin-infested rooms, being subjected to 20-hour room confinement, and receiving inconsistent schooling and medical care and inadequate, sometimes spoiled food.

As a result, until last year, the detention facility was under a federal consent decree that governed the education and treatment of teens held there, in the care of the city and Orleans Parish School Board — which is responsible for educational services to youth confined at either the Youth Study Center or the jail.

To get out from under the consent decree, the city invested heavily in staff improvements and training, fire and building safety, access to recreation, better food, and education and medical screening for new arrivals. It also limited its use of shackles and lockdowns. And in May, the center moved into a new state-of-the-art building with 40 beds, its own clinic, classrooms and a gymnasium.

A recent report by the Center for Children’s Rights, called “Keeping Children Out of OPP,” touted the Youth Study Center “as the only facility in New Orleans that can house transferred youth constitutionally and in accordance with best practices for safety and positive youth development.”

Conveniently, the facility also has vacancies. On Oct. 30, the day the report was released, there were 24 empty beds at the Youth Study Center and 17 juvenile offenders at OPP.

Ultimately, policymakers must look at the bigger picture, scrutinizing the arrest records and needs of all juvenile offenders and determining who can be safely housed and educated together, said Mark Soler, who heads the national Center for Children’s Law and Policy and has worked on juvenile-detention and data-collection issues in New Orleans and across the nation.

But Soler said the OPP inmates can be returned to the Youth Study Center before the analysis is complete, because the facility’s design allows the two groups to be kept apart in two secure 20-bed units, each broken down into three separate pods, two with eight beds and one with four beds. That would ensure that low-risk offenders aren’t kept alongside defendants charged with more serious offenses.

Local advocates also have expressed concern that without sufficient forethought, the problems of OPP’s juvenile tier could travel to the youth facility. Mayoral spokeswoman Crawford noted that one of the mayor’s foremost concerns about the move was how to protect not only older juveniles charged as adults, but also the children as young as 11 who can be held in the Youth Study Center.

Without a doubt, Soler said, such a shift would require a swift infusion of staff and longer-range programming. It also would call for a contingency plan, or an alternate place to detain youth, in case of overflow after a spike in youth arrests.

“All that will take some money,” Soler said. “But it’s cheap compared to what a lawsuit could cost once a kid gets assaulted at OPP.”

Dangers of adult jail

The New Orleans debate on youth custody is informed by years of national research and data documenting that adult facilities are harmful for youth safety and welfare.

Jeffrey Fagan, who directs the Center for Crime, Community and Law at Columbia Law School, said “putting kids in prison is like giving somebody chemotherapy who doesn’t have cancer: It’s traumatizing.” When compared with children held in juvenile facilities, children held in prisons show increased signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental problems, Fagan said.

Schwartzmann has seen the effects of 23-hour solitary confinement on youths held in the jail. “The kids deteriorate,” she said, describing how after a certain period, she’s seen confined youths who are afraid to leave their cells or who begin to throw food from their locked cells.

Stelly, the sheriff’s spokesman, had no comment about jail conditions for this story.

Fears of violence are well-founded at Orleans Parish Prison, Councilman Williams said. “I think there is no reason why we should continue to traumatize children when we know there is an option,” he said, as he introduced his resolution on the matter.

The recent report by the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights chronicled the violence, rapes and sexual abuse that led to the federal consent decree at OPP. For instance, the lawsuit began with a complaint filed by three youths housed at OPP; the problems they described seem to have continued unchecked, despite litigation. The same day that U.S. District Judge Lance Africk signed the consent decree, a 16-year-old was attacked while asleep and stabbed more than 20 times with a shank.

A long walk

On the day of one of Richard’s appearances in “adult court,” Juanita Allen had only a one-way bus fare, which she planned to use for the ride back. So she set out on foot at 7 a.m. for Tulane and Broad. As she walked up the steep courthouse stairs, she was breathing hard and had to stop to use her inhaler.

Then, as she went through the security line, deputies told her that courthouse rules prohibited her from bringing her phone. A store across the street keeps people’s phones for $1, they said, so she walked there, handed over her phone and her bus fare home, and then climbed the stairs again.

By the time she reached the top, she was gasping so hard that the deputies asked her if they should call an ambulance.

“No,” she said. “I’ve got to see my son.”

She used her inhaler, caught her breath as best she could and walked to Section G.