In Louisiana, criminal suspects as young as 14, 15 or 16 can be tried as adults for a range of serious and violent offenses. Ultimately, it is up to district attorneys and judges to decide where their cases should be prosecuted.
But last week, policymakers debated whether suspects that youths should also be jailed as though they are adults while they await trial, especially given the history of complaints about Orleans Parish Prison.
The alternative would be to keep those young suspects at the city’s Youth Study Center, a detention facility designed to hold young people facing charges in Juvenile Court. Last week, the New Orleans City Council weighed in with a resolution urging that approach as the more humane option.
By a 4-to-3 margin, the council voted Thursday to spell out its position for the first time, asking the city and Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who runs OPP, to take “any and all necessary steps” to remove youthful suspects from the jail and house them at the Youth Study Center.
The item wasn’t originally on the agenda, but the council voted to add it at the very end of Thursday’s meeting. Councilman Jason Williams, who sponsored the resolution along with Councilwomen Susan Guidry and LaToya Cantrell, introduced it by saying that the “removal of youth from Orleans Parish Prison is imperative.”
Williams had debated whether to put off a vote on the resolution until it was clear there was enough money assigned to the Youth Study Center to provide programming and other services for youths coming from OPP.
Williams said he finally opted not to wait for two reasons: There is available space at the Youth Study Center, and the conditions at OPP are unconstitutional.
Still, it’s not clear if the council’s resolution will have any effect. Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently appointed a working group to help decide the question, but it has yet to meet.
Youth Study Center Director Glenn Holt told council members at a budget hearing earlier this month that mixing two populations — young suspects being tried as adults and those who remain in Juvenile Court — runs afoul of “best practices” for facilities such as his.
Until recently, the study center was doing just that. But over the past few months, Holt has sent all teenagers facing trial as adults back to the juvenile wing of OPP.
The shift caused alarm among some policymakers and youth advocates. Youth are at risk for abuse in any prison setting, but council members said the risk is heightened at OPP, which is under a federal consent decree for unconstitutional conditions.
Thursday’s resolution noted that the initial complaint about OPP’s conditions that led to the consent decree came from a group of teenagers awaiting trial. And it cited a federal judge’s finding that many younger suspects at OPP have to be held in protective isolation because of the risk of “physical and sexual abuse.”
Josh Perry, head of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, asked the council’s support “for a principle — that children should not be held at Orleans Parish Prison — and for a process that moves them out as quickly as possible.”
Carol Kolinchak, the legal director at the Children’s Rights Center, said that even after 22 years of practicing criminal law, she was not prepared for the shocking stories she heard from young people during a recent visit to OPP.
“One youth told me, ‘You’re safe at YSC. No one is safe here,’ ” she testified.
Mayoral aide Eric Granderson also addressed the council, emphasizing that Landrieu agreed with the idea that youths should be moved from the jail. He said the new task force will begin work the week after Thanksgiving.
Council members James Gray and Nadine Ramsey shared the perspective that juveniles shouldn’t be held in OPP but questioned whether the council should specify the solution by naming the Youth Study Center in its resolution. They ultimately voted against the resolution, as did Councilman Jared Brossett.
Council President Stacy Head agreed with Gray and Ramsey that some of the resolution’s specificity gave her “discomfort,” but she cast the deciding vote for the measure. “The status quo is abhorrent,” she said.