The New Orleans City Council on Thursday deferred action on a contentious resolution seeking to curb the high proportion of juvenile defendants in the city who are transferred from Juvenile Court to Criminal District Court.
The resolution, authored by Councilwoman Susan Guidry, would call upon District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to “reduce the number of children prosecuted in adult criminal court, to re-evaluate current juvenile-transfer practices and to use a rigorous and comprehensive screening process before a child is transferred to adult criminal court.”
Cannizzaro described the resolution as an attempt to undermine the authority of his office. “I don’t think it’s productive to pit one public official against another,” he said as he waited to testify against the resolution.
About an hour later, Cannizzaro stepped to the lectern and agreed to council President Jason Williams’ suggestion that he participate in a working group that would, over the next month or two, hash out the issues addressed by the resolution.
The two men specifically discussed improvements to Juvenile Court and an expanded juvenile-transfer protocol that likely would include psychological assessments of each child facing transfer.
“We have to be willing to work together to fix what’s broken here,” Williams said.
Cannizzaro has said he disagrees with Guidry’s characterization of his transfer process and that he doesn’t trust the state’s juvenile justice system to successfully rehabilitate teenagers charged with violent crimes.
Guidry and her allies on the council note that the city budget includes $6 million for the District Attorney’s Office, which they say should give them some purview over what they see as wrong-headed practices.
They say Orleans Parish has the highest rate of transfers to adult court of any parish in the state and that teenagers who are incarcerated in the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections system commit future crimes at higher rates than teens locked up in the juvenile system.
Nearly all of the juvenile defendants eligible for transfer would be given mandatory “juvenile life” — incarceration until age 21 — if kept in Juvenile Court. Under the current system, many receive prison sentences of about that length in adult court.
Though some youth advocates on Thursday opposed deferral of Guidry’s resolution, it likely was the most practical way to deal with what has been widely portrayed as a battle between the district attorney and Guidry.
Even some of the resolution’s proponents had questioned its effectiveness if passed. It would only express the will of the City Council and would have no legal force; the district attorney could continue to exercise his prerogative to transfer cases, as allowed by state law.
A working group trying to forge an agreement is better than a “resolution with no teeth,” Williams said.
Guidry agreed to the concept of a working group, though not one that drags out for more than 60 days, because she said the stakes are too high for the teenagers who are transferred into “a system not made for them.”
If the district attorney’s transfer pace continues, his office could transfer 40 juveniles to adult court in 2016, she said.