One young man’s story sticks with Judge Mark Doherty. The teen had made his way to Juvenile Court twice before for minor offenses. Then it got worse.

“He got arrested for a crime of violence which basically, next to murder, is the worst thing — an armed robbery,” Doherty said.

Doherty, who has spent 16 years on the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court bench, still recalls how, as a young prosecutor, he was taught that the only difference between armed robbery and murder was “movement of the index finger.”

Mobile/tablet users: Click here to view a video.

In Juvenile Court, armed robbery cases are among the most serious cases he sees. And this defendant, though just 14, was especially brazen. While the boy’s mother was attending church, he and a friend managed to pull off two robberies. “Two separate ones, within 20 minutes of each other, against elderly people,” Doherty said. “Committed in broad daylight.”

The District Attorney’s Office could have held a hearing asking Doherty to transfer the 14-year-old to Criminal District Court to be prosecuted as an adult. “The state chose not to go that route,” Doherty said. So the teen stayed in Juvenile Court.

It was a pivotal decision.

In Louisiana, anyone 17 or older is an adult in the eyes of the law. Anyone younger is tried in Juvenile Court — with some exceptions.

Teenagers who are at least 14 can be transferred to adult court, though the process varies according to the defendant’s age. To transfer a 14-year-old child requires the blessing of a Juvenile Court judge, who must conclude the child is not amenable to rehabilitation. But older teens, 15 and 16 years old, can be transferred at the DA’s discretion if they are charged with specific serious offenses.

Before Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro took office in 2009, most cases that could have been transferred were not. Now, the opposite is true: Last year, Cannizzaro’s office transferred 75 percent of eligible cases to adult court and nearly 90 percent of cases involving 15- and 16-year-olds charged with armed robbery — by far the most common transfer-eligible offense in most jurisdictions.

The DA acknowledges he has charted a new course. “My predecessors were far more lenient with juvenile offenders, and the results speak for themselves,” he said by email.

Yet there are no conclusive results to display, no outcomes linked to the practice of routing so many juveniles into the adult system. No central office keeps statistics on how many youths are transferred or what becomes of them.

With information from several criminal-justice sources, The New Orleans Advocate was able to compile a database of 204 juvenile offenders from New Orleans who have been transferred over the past six years.

Those statistics make clear that, for better or for worse, New Orleans is unusual in sending so many youths into the adult system. And in a city whose most famous son, Louis Armstrong, was a repeat juvenile delinquent, many youth advocates and judges question why more troubled teens aren’t given more of a chance at rehabilitation.

Cannizzaro says he bases his thinking on the victims, not the offenders .

“With respect to juveniles charged with armed robbery, this DA’s Office begins its analysis with the belief that adjudication in Criminal District Court is more appropriate,” Cannizzaro spokesman Chris Bowman said. “The theory behind this policy is simple. When dealing with crimes of violence, DA Cannizzaro’s primary concern is public safety. The DA believes that a 16-year-old armed robber is no less dangerous than a 20-year-old armed robber.”

But researchers dispute the idea that sending kids into the adult system improves public safety, pointing to a number of studies showing that transferred youth are more apt to reoffend when released. A report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that children tried as adults are 35 percent more likely to be rearrested than those who stay in the juvenile system. Another long-term study, by a Columbia University law professor, put the number at 100 percent.

The DA’s arguments, though, will resonate with some in a city where violent crimes rates have skyrocketed of late.

Armed robberies were up by nearly 40 percent last year. Jittery residents of the French Quarter and other neighborhoods have been calling for more police protection and banding together for safety, sometimes taking cabs instead of walking two blocks.

It’s routine, meanwhile, to turn on the news and see video footage of young men, roving in groups, grabbing iPhones, wallets and purses, or robbing people as they unload groceries from their car. A victim in one such case, who spoke to The New Orleans Advocate on condition of anonymity, recalled her terror as a red laser sight trained on her white winter vest shook along with the young gunman’s hand.

Cannizzaro said such cases inform his thinking.

“The same reason that advocates for juvenile delinquents say they should not be treated as adults is the exact same reason I believe that they are so dangerous — namely their lack of higher order decision-making skills,” he wrote in an email. “These offenders are far more impulsive and far less concerned about the consequences of their decisions on others. As such, they are far more likely to pull the trigger.”

Swimming against tide

What’s happening in New Orleans, though, is out of step with the national and regional picture.

Across America, juvenile crime rates have declined for more than a decade, and juvenile arrests for violent crime are at an all-time low. That has led many states to develop less punitive policies, including restricting adult-transfer options, raising the age of jurisdiction for juvenile courts and keeping juveniles out of adult lockups.

Within Louisiana, New Orleans’ practices stand out. While Orleans Parish transferred an average of 32 juveniles to adult court each year between 2010 and 2013, East Baton Rouge — a larger parish that sees more armed robberies than Orleans each year — transferred an average of just seven a year. Jefferson Parish, also larger but with fewer armed robberies, transferred an average of eight.

On a percentage basis, Caddo Parish came closest to Orleans, transferring 39 percent of its eligible cases in 2013 — or roughly half the rate here. But Jefferson shifted only 22 percent over the last two years, a rate kept low by design, according to Amanda Calogero, head of Jefferson Parish’s Juvenile Division.

Law enforcement and court staff there now use a risk-assessment instrument to calculate scores for each child, based on factors such as past violence or probation violations and the age at which they started offending. Paul Frick, who chairs the department of psychology at the University of New Orleans, helped implement the model.

The idea, Frick said, is: “Let’s make sure you’re locking up or transferring the right kids. Clearly, there are some kids who are more violent than others. But that’s a very, very small number of juveniles.”

In short, a teen arrested in Terrytown faces a much different process from one arrested in Treme. “No kid pays attention to parish lines,” Doherty said. “But for kids, it will determine how they will be tried and what services are available to them. It could determine the entire course of their lives.”

Statistics and data

Meredith Angelson has watched the transfer process first-hand as a public defender on the “juvenile transfer squad,” formed to defend juveniles charged in adult court and, more recently, as part of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Children Tried As Adults project in New Orleans.

She has been frustrated by the lack of data on juvenile transfers. In hopes of understanding the issue better, she has requested transfer statistics from every district attorney and court in Louisiana.

Better data are a crucial part of the puzzle, according to Hector Linares, a professor at LSU Law School and a member of the state Children’s Code Committee.

“We can’t track outcomes if we don’t know how many juveniles are transferred each year,” he said.

Yet only a few states, including Arizona, California and Florida, have found a way to centralize such data.

The data gap is a national challenge, said Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. “I’ve always said that, as important as the transfer decision is in the lives of these youth, the fact that we can’t even say how many youth end up in criminal court is astounding,” she said.

Sickmund is working on a project with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics to remedy that, by collecting data from courts across the nation for defendants younger than 18.

Experts agree that some youths accused of serious offenses must be treated as adults. Research shows that, while most youths enter a juvenile court once and never return, some are budding career criminals.

Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research & Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he believes the prosecution of youths as adults should be used when it’s clear a juvenile will likely continue to commit serious crime. Otherwise, it shouldn’t, he said.

“It basically destroys a person’s future,” Butts said. “We know it makes things worse; but we use it if it’s necessary to prevent something even worse.”

Crime scholar Franklin Zimring, a professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Law, also believes transfers should be used only for “the worst conceivable cases.”

Transfer rates as high as those in Orleans, Zimring said, point to a district attorney making “wholesale judgments, not looking at individual kids.”

Cannizzaro maintains that his office does evaluate each case individually. But he also says his default position on certain crimes, including armed robbery, is that they should be prosecuted in adult court.

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he sympathizes with Cannizzaro’s position, in part because he wonders whether the services offered by Louisiana’s juvenile facilities are as “robust” as they are in other states.

“If the juvenile system does not have the capability to work with these troubled youth and significantly decrease the risk they pose to the public, then I think, in many respects, the DA is choosing the lesser of two evils,” Goyeneche said.

Making judgments

Doherty believes careful determinations take time.

He still recalls how the young man charged in the two robberies showed no emotion during proceedings.

“Here was a young man who did not seem to have much remorse or understanding about the nature of the problem,” Doherty said.

But juvenile judges are supposed to dig deeper, ordering psychiatric and developmental assessments, interviewing relatives and looking at the offender’s school records. So Doherty knew, for example, the defendant had a solid mother who made sure her son got what he needed.

At sentencing, the youth’s elderly victims testified about what they’d been through. Both victims looked the defendant in the eye and said, “I thought I was going to die. I thought you were going to pull that trigger and kill me.”

They cried. They told him that they wondered if they’d see their grandchildren again and that they thought every day about how he’d pointed his gun at them.

Because Juvenile Court is so small — intimate, even — the young man’s mother was seated close by, and she extended her apologies to them.

“You could see the light going on in this young man’s eyes and the interaction between his mother and the victims in front of him,” Doherty said.

He sentenced the youth to what’s known as “juvenile life” — state custody in a secure juvenile lockup until age 21.

Seven years — a long time, to be sure, but time spent in juvenile facilities is designed to be different from prison. Ideally, such facilities provide services such as mentoring, drug treatment, job placement and educational support. While in secure care, the troubled boy became an academic standout and a leader. Upon his release, his progress continued.

“Advocates got him into programs that worked just as they were designed,” Doherty said, and the boy’s mother “moved heaven and earth to make it work.”

Certainly, not every child Doherty sees is so successful. “But here’s a kid it worked for,” Doherty said, adding that the young man will now grow up without a felony conviction on his record.

Put simply, he said, “Either we’re trying to rehabilitate kids or we’re not.”

Cannizzaro said he is less focused on how the youthful offender turns out. By the time he opts for transfer, he said, the crime is so serious that “rehabilitation, if possible, is a secondary concern.”

And by then, he added, the child has had many other chances. “It is the job and purpose of a juvenile’s family, community, church, school and psychologist to prevent the individual from resorting to violent crime,” he said. “The District Attorney’s Office comes to the table when these institutions have already failed.”

Evolving legislation

In the 1970s, only two states, Florida and Georgia, allowed prosecutors discretion about whether to file certain cases in adult or juvenile court. But a spike in youth crime led most states to pass tougher laws, and a dozen states, including Louisiana, granted prosecutors more control in charging juveniles.

In 1992, the Louisiana Legislature voted to allow DAs to charge juveniles as adults for 11 enumerated crimes, including attempted murder and armed robbery. Such discretion now accounts for most transfers. In such cases, “the prosecutor doesn’t have to give any reason, and he doesn’t have to justify his decision to anyone,” Linares said.

But the thinking that routed so many juveniles into the adult system seems to be changing. Louisiana is now one of only nine states where teens are charged as adults at 17. Several legislatures also have recently moved to limit prosecutors’ discretion by allowing criminal court judges to return a case to juvenile court in certain cases.

In a series of recent decisions, meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that juveniles deserve protections not afforded to adults. For instance, in the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision, the court ruled that juveniles could not be subject to mandatory life sentences.

“The principle behind today’s decision seems to be only that because juveniles are different from adults, they must be sentenced differently,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan, in a decision that cited science about the adolescent brain and state laws that have moved toward rehabilitation.

Indeed, new research has driven many of the policy shifts, said Krista Larson, director of the Vera Institute’s Center on Youth Justice. One major study, comparing carefully matched juveniles charged in New York and New Jersey, was conducted by Jeffrey Fagan, who leads the Center for Crime, Community and Law at Columbia Law School. His data showed “significant recidivism differences” between youths who stayed in juvenile court and those tried as adults, differences that started out as 20 percentage points but jumped to 100 percent after seven years.

A U.S. Department of Justice roundup notes that six large-scale studies have examined youth transfers, and all “found higher recidivism rates among offenders who had been transferred to criminal court, compared with those who were retained in the juvenile system.”

Because of his research, Fagan doesn’t see widespread juvenile transfers as a strategy that protects long-term public safety.

“To run transfer as a program to achieve crime-control objectives, it’s a mistake,” he said. “It actually does more harm than good.”

For his part, Cannizzaro said he holds out hope that some youths might be rehabilitated if kept in the juvenile system. But he’s not counting on it.

“As the district attorney for the Parish of Orleans,” he said, “I am not going to risk the safety of the law-abiding citizens of this community on a hope.”

Staff writers John Simerman and Caitlin McNally contributed to this report.