New Orleans City Councilwoman Susan Guidry took a first stab last week at dealing with one thorny aspect of the city’s handling of accused juvenile delinquents: where youths headed to adult court should be kept while they await trial.
Should they be treated as adults and held in Orleans Parish Prison? Or should they be held in the city-run juvenile lockup, the Youth Study Center in Gentilly?
Her ordinance, introduced Thursday, would designate the Youth Study Center “as the appropriate adult facility for the pre-detention of all children.” It would set aside 12 beds there to hold juveniles whose cases have been transferred to Criminal District Court for crimes other than murder, aggravated rape or kidnapping. The balance of the facility’s 40 beds, meanwhile, would remain available for youths awaiting trial in Juvenile Court.
The proposed law grew out of Guidry’s work on a nine-member working group convened by Mayor Mitch Landrieu that has been meeting since December. It is chaired by Charles West, who leads the mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team. The group, which also includes Councilman Jason Williams, youth advocates and judges, is assessing the feasibility of removing all pretrial juveniles from OPP, including when it could happen and how much it would cost.
Youth Study Center Superintendent Glenn Holt has expressed concern about providing schooling and therapeutic services to defendants headed for adult court, saying it will require more staff and a longer-term curriculum. In part, that’s because defendants move through Juvenile Court proceedings much more swiftly, staying an average of 19 days compared with roughly 300 days for those routed to adult court.
“The mayor and the council have made getting children out of dangerous conditions at OPP a top priority,” Guidry said. “While my goal, and the goal of the working group, is the removal of all children from OPP, this ordinance is a good first step, given the resources and staffing currently available at the Youth Study Center.”
Part of the city’s concern is violence against young inmates, which is common in prisons everywhere but particularly bad in OPP. The lawsuit that led to the federal consent decree at the prison began with a complaint filed by three youths housed there; the problems they described seem to have continued unchecked. On the same day that U.S. District Judge Lance Africk signed the decree, a 16-year-old was attacked while asleep and stabbed more than 20 times with a shank.
The youth custody issue also figures into the debate over the proper size for the city’s jail. The city is already trying to figure out how to shoehorn all local inmates into the soon-to-be-opened 1,438-bed jail. Due to federal rules requiring that adolescents be separated from adult prisoners, youthful offenders could eat up two 60-bed tiers, one for boys and one for girls — possibly requiring the construction of another building.
Of the nearly 30 New Orleans youths now awaiting trial in adult court, about 15 are being held in OPP and eight in the YSC, while a handful have been released on electronic monitoring.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro told The New Orleans Advocate that his foremost concern is that young defendants be held in a place where they don’t pose a safety risk to the staff or fellow inmates. “Fully recognizing the benefit of the social programming provided at the YSC — when individuals housed at the YSC assault the personnel and disrupt the social programming it provides, I will continue to petition that they be transferred to (Orleans Parish Prison and) the custody of the sheriff,” he said by email.