Juvenile defendants in New Orleans awaiting trial at Criminal District Court on charges other than murder, aggravated rape or kidnapping will be housed at the Youth Study Center, the City Council decided Thursday in passing an ordinance that designates the Gentilly facility as the interim home for some pretrial children charged as adults.
The temporary measure is intended to separate most children from adults in Orleans Parish Prison and to reduce the risk of physical and emotional abuse of children at the prison. A permanent solution for separating the two age groups has not been identified.
The ordinance, approved unanimously, was sponsored by Councilwoman Susan Guidry with support from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.
“The purpose of this ordinance is to provide as much temporary relief to the situation facing our youth at Orleans Parish Prison as we can right now,” Guidry said. “This is merely the first step, not the last.”
Under the ordinance, 14- to 16-year-olds whose cases have been transferred to Criminal District Court to face charges such as armed robbery, assault and battery will be sent to Unit A and Unit C of the East Pod, or Pelicans pod, of the 40-bed Youth Study Center. The units contain a total of 12 beds.
Children charged with murder, aggravated rape or kidnapping are not eligible for housing at the center.
The remaining areas of the center will continue to be reserved for youths awaiting trial in Juvenile Court. Over the past two years, the center has averaged 21 youths in that category on any given day, said Charles West, of the Mayor’s Innovation Team.
The ordinance essentially turns the Milton Street center into two distinct facilities.
The proposed law is the result of the work of a nine-member working group, including youth advocates, council members and judges, that has been meeting since December to assess the feasibility of removing all pretrial juveniles from Orleans Parish Prison.
Youth advocates have said that young inmates often are victims of violence in OPP.
The advocates and city officials have expressed a long-term goal of moving all children, regardless of the charges against them, out of OPP. But that will likely require the construction of another building at the Youth Study Center.
At the moment, the YSC is housing 13 juveniles who are awaiting trial in criminal court, one more than is allowed under the ordinance.
Criminal District Court judges are given the discretion to decide where juveniles are held. When deciding whether to send a child to the YSC or OPP, the judge will take into account the capacity of the two facilities and also will assess the youth to be transferred to ensure that he doesn’t have significant mental illness, disabilities or a history of victimization that would make him susceptible to abuse in OPP, West said.
Youth advocates applauded the temporary measure, but they urged the council to push forward with a permanent plan to remove all children from the prison and also to press the District Attorney’s Office to explain why so many children are being tried as adults.
“The city must act quickly to develop and implement a long-term plan to house all transfer youth at YSC,” including those charged with more violent crimes, said Rachel Gassert, policy director at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. “To that end, the council should consider the question of why there are so many transfer youth in the first place. Juvenile transfer is not only detrimental to the youth but also fails to improve public safety.”
Councilman Jason Williams said the council will question District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro about what he said has been a spike in the number of juvenile cases the Distrcit Attorney’s Office is shifting to adult court.
“We need to address that and address it quickly,” Williams said. “We are creating a scenario that is hardening and stealing the youth of our citizens, and then we’re crying surprise when we see the rates of crimes that involve young people.”