Taking a hard-line stance against what he said is the growing problem of juvenile crime in New Orleans, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro on Thursday proposed a number of measures to beef up law enforcement efforts, including increasing arrests of truant kids and negligent parents, adding more beds to the juvenile lock-up and ending restrictions on high-speed police chases.
Cannizzaro said the May 8 shooting of 63-year-old Zelda Townsend and her husband underscored the need to tackle crimes committed by young people. According to police, the couple was shot in Mid-City as they tried to stop a 17-year-old from burglarizing their car. Townsend died and her husband was wounded.
Violent crimes like homicides hit historic lows in New Orleans in 2018, but juvenile arrests were up, and Cannizzaro has spent much of the past year raising alarms about the latter trend.
"The question no longer is whether this city is too hard on juvenile offenders," Cannizzaro said. "It is whether juvenile offenders are too hard on this city. Mrs. Townsend's murder leaves no doubt of the answer."
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Juvenile arrests grew over the last three calendar years, according to data the Police Department provided to WWL-TV. There were 786 juvenile felony arrests in 2016, 965 in 2017 and 1,232 in 2018.
However, preliminary data suggest that youth crime might be down in 2019. Police identified 756 youthful suspects in electronic crime reports through May 16, compared to 1,247 over the same period last year, according to a New Orleans Advocate analysis.
The rough data sometimes include multiple incidents attributed to a single suspect. The Police Department said it could not immediately provide fine-grained data.
Critics of the district attorney quickly dismissed Cannizzaro's latest plan as a misguided repeat of past attempts to reduce crime through increased incarceration.
The district attorney said police officers and Juvenile Court judges have been pressured to go easy on youthful offenders, although he declined to identify the sources of that pressure. He also criticized a shift mandated by the City Council to arrest fewer juveniles for low-level “status offenses” like truancy and curfew violations.
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Police on Monday said they had recently arrested a 15-year-old boy suspected of shooting three people last month in New Orleans East.
“We've seen a significant decrease in those arrests in the last eight years because of the policy of the city of sort of coddling these offenders,” Cannizzaro said. He said arresting youthful offenders “gives you the opportunity to bring somebody in front of a judge with a parent to try to straighten out what may be wayward activity.”
Cannizzaro was quick to say that he had no criticism of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who as a City Council member in 2017 voted to have police give first-time juvenile offenders only a warning for status offenses.
The district attorney’s proposals also included requiring ankle monitors and detention for repeat and violent offenders, expanding his office's budget for youth prosecutions and bringing in more state troopers through the summer.
He said the city should put “the public safety needs of New Orleans' citizens and visitors ahead of the demands of outside donors and justice reform groups,” a swipe at groups like the MacArthur Justice Foundation, which awarded the city $2 million this year to further reduce its jail population.
Cannizzaro’s office stands to receive about $300,000 to hire three more diversion counselors as part of the MacArthur grant.
Some parts of Cannizzaro’s eight-point plan would require approval or input from the City Council, where it could face headwinds. Council President Jason Williams, who has announced that he will run for district attorney next year, has accused Cannizzaro of "fear-mongering." Cannizzaro has not said whether he will run for re-election.
Meanwhile, the group that represents youthful defendants in Juvenile Court also dismissed Cannizzaro’s latest speech as nothing new.
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“The DA’s proposal is not going to reduce juvenile crime because all it does is call for more of the same — more policing and more incarceration of black children and their families,” said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights and a former aide to Williams. “Clearly this approach hasn’t made us safer, so why does the DA keep insisting on it? We need to invest our resources in solutions that will actually help our young people and make our community safe.”
Ninety-six percent of juveniles arrested in New Orleans in 2017 were black, according to the center’s data.
Juveniles represented just 6 percent of those arrested for violent crimes in 2018, according to data collected by City Council crime analyst Jeff Asher.
Louisiana law allows for the imprisonment or fining of parents convicted of improper supervision of a minor, a law the district attorney cited in his proposals. But that law appears to be rarely used in New Orleans. A New Orleans Advocate analysis of police data did not reveal any arrests under that statute from 2017 to the present.
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this report.
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