What does it mean to love and protect all the children in our community?
Recently, New Orleans Police Department officers opened fire at teens who were pulling on car door handles and driving a stolen vehicle. This is against NOPD’s own policy: “Officers shall not discharge a firearm from or at a moving vehicle unless the occupants of the vehicle are using deadly force other than the vehicle itself against the officer or another person, and such action is necessary for self-defense or to protect another person.” The gunfire resulted in four schools being put on lockdown, terrorizing the students left inside as well as their parents and teachers.
What is the appropriate response to teens attempting to burglarize vehicles? We argue that it isn’t death by police shooting or even incarceration, but rather rehabilitative programming and services that will help these young people get back on track. We would hope that the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court judges, who are entrusted with the nuanced job of both ensuring public safety and dealing compassionately with the dangerous and illegal behaviors of traumatized children, would agree.
Instead, the judges sent out a memo on announcing that they had passed a resolution imposing an automatic hold on all youth with current open cases. Though the memo gives lip service to the importance of “innovative” interventions instead of incarceration, the judges’ action demonstrates the continuation of “tough on crime” policies that have been proven ineffective time and time again, especially with juveniles.
Most disturbingly, the memo states: “The judges believe that this action will send a message to citizens of their commitment to public safety and help rid the community of youth who pose a danger to the community.” When we begin to see other people’s children as disposable, as problems to get rid of, we have truly turned away from compassion and rehabilitation.
Such language also obscures the reality that juvenile crime is on the decline in New Orleans. Yet with 28 new youth beds set to open at the re-branded Juvenile Justice Intervention Center, there is renewed pressure to arrest young people. The expansion of the youth detention center was part of a deal advocates made to end the sheriff’s dangerous policy of holding child offenders at the adult prison, but by increasing the city’s capacity for imprisoned children by 40%, we risk criminalizing even more young people. Once the beds are built, they will be filled.
Left unsaid in the judges’ memo is any information about long-term solutions to help teens who commit crimes and their families. What are these “innovative” programs and “flexible intervention strategies” the judges reference? Have they been tested? Are they effective? Can families struggling with a troubled child enroll them in the programs before they become court-involved?
Ubuntu works with families in the juvenile courtroom every day, and over and over we meet parents who want to help their children, who care about their communities and public safety, and who have no idea where to turn for help. The alternatives to incarceration offered by the court vary wildly in quality and there are no accountability mechanisms or standards for care. It’s far too easy for court-involved children, who have been let down repeatedly by adults in their lives, to fall through the cracks yet again.
Genuine reform is not a rushed reaction to high-profile incidents. It takes planning, research, and long-term economic investment. We have the resources and the expertise to reduce violent crime in our communities, but it won’t happen through increased policing and incarceration.
Instead of shooting at teens and helping rid the community of them, we should invest in interventions proven to reduce crime and recidivism and demonstrate our commitment to love and protect all the children in our city.
Ernest Johnson is Director of Ubuntu Village NOLA, which provides services to youth who are involved in the criminal justice system and their families.