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New Orleans Youth Crime: The Epidemic That Wasn’t

In rhetoric reminiscent of the ‘superpredator‘ scare of the 1990s, the New Orleans District Attorney warned of ‘a brazen population of delinquent teens.‘ But advocates and crime analysts alike say the data doesn’t support his fearmongering claims about kids and crime.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon CannizzaroPhoto illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from the Orleans Parish DA website.

In December 2018, New Orleans teens Brandon Dean and Dwayne Fortenberry navigated a Mazda SUV through the Gentilly neighborhood when they ran a red light and crashed at an intersection. 

When a woman driving a red Hyundai stopped to make sure they were okay, Brandon pulled a handgun from his waistband, and they forced their way into her car. The teenagers then ordered the driver to take them to the Upper Ninth Ward. Their escape plan failed; they were arrested and later charged with felony kidnapping.

In court, the carjacking victim, a 38-year-old woman, told the judge that she was terrified during the encounter. She said that Brandon, while wielding the gun, just stared at her coldly. But the victim also said that Dwayne apologized to her repeatedly during the incident while telling her that he was scared, too.

In April, Brandon, 17, pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree kidnapping and possession of a stolen firearm. In accordance with the victim’s wishes and because of his cooperation with police, 15-year-old Dwayne entered a guilty plea to an amended charge of simple kidnapping. 

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro could have charged Dwayne as a juvenile but instead decided to prosecute his case in adult court. Dwayne faced up to five years in prison, but in May he was sentenced to probation. 

“I’ve said for months that violent juvenile offenders pose the greatest crime problem New Orleans faces in 2019,” Cannizzaro said in a statement announcing the teens’ guilty pleas. “The catch-and-release approach being pushed by some is failing these at-risk children and backfiring dangerously upon our citizens.”

For months, the Orleans DA has pushed a message that youth crime is not just rising in New Orleans but is at “epidemic” levels while using rhetoric—“this city is creating a brazen population of delinquent teens emboldened by the lack of meaningful consequences for their criminal behavior”—reminiscent of the “superpredator” scare of the 1990s.

In mid-May, Cannizzaro announced an eight-point plan to curb youth crime, which he said would include strict curfew enforcement for young people. 

Mayor LaToya Cantrell has supported Cannizzaro’s crusade for tougher enforcement against children, too. In late May, Cantrell announced that the city and New Orleans police would enforce curfew for any young people out past 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays (8 p.m. when school is in session). Parents of those who repeatedly break curfew can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined $500. The same week, Cantrell announced that the city would begin to move some young people to the adult jail while their cases are pending to alleviate overcrowding at the Youth Study Center. In the first week of June, six young people were placed in Orleans Justice Center. 

Cantrell’s office confirmed that the Orleans DA’s office is charging all six as adults, and said that no other children have been sent to the adult jail since this first wave of transfers.

“The most appropriate facility should be evaluated based on the facts of each particular case,” the mayor’s spokesperson, Michael Tidwell, told The Appeal. “Mayor Cantrell is deeply committed to an approach to juvenile justice that results in better outcomes for everyone impacted.” 

Tidwell added that it is the mayor’s position that when individuals have committed violent crimes and have pleaded to or been indicted on adult charges “moving them out of the Youth Study Center is necessary.”

However, numerous studies have shown that children charged as adults are far more likely to reoffend than those who enter the juvenile system. One 2003 study in Pennsylvania found that children charged as adults were twice as likely to be rearrested within 18 months than children charged in juvenile court.

“Pushing young people into the adult system simply reinforces the likelihood they will engage with future criminal behavior, it costs more, and doesn’t help public safety,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, an advocacy organization that brings together local prosecutors to promote a more fair and fiscally responsible system.

“This approach fails to recognize the brain development, propensity to change, and ability to address the underlying cause of criminal behavior,” she added.

Cantrell’s position is a departure from her prior stances on juvenile justice while serving as a New Orleans city councilmember. In 2015, she voted for an ordinance that designated the Youth Study Center as the “appropriate adult facility for the pre-trial detention of all children … who are charged as adults.” 

Just days after the city announced the move of young people to the Orleans Parish Prison, about 100 advocates and parents staged a protest outside City Hall, proclaiming that the new policies essentially give police the green light to harass young people in their communities.

“With Mayor Cantrell’s support, NOPD is stopping and frisking young people who are out past curfew, and juvenile court judges are making it a policy to detain and jail more youth,” Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said at the protest. 

The Orleans Justice Center is in its seventh year of a federal consent decree.  In 2016, 15-year-old Jaquin Thomas hanged himself in a cell a week after being beat up inside the jail. In 2017, there were six in-custody deaths at the jail. 

The Orleans DA and city officials insist that youth crime is “out of control.” In February 2019, local television station WWL ran a story headlined, “Violent crime by juvenile offenders in New Orleans is hitting record levels” in which it was reported that, according to statistics compiled by the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, the number of violent crimes that passed through the city’s juvenile court in 2018 was 339—a “nearly tenfold” increase from the 37 recorded violent crimes in 2015. 

Renée Slajda, communications director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, told The Appeal that “the jump can be accounted for by improved data collection by juvenile court, not by an actual increase in violent crimes.” 

Slajda added that the violent crime statistics that city officials shared with the media do not refer to incidents or arrests, but rather to the number of total charges that were filed by prosecutors. “This is a poor way to measure crime, especially as petitions are not necessarily filed in the same year that the alleged incident occurred,” she said.

Indeed, newly released data from New Orleans’s City Hall shows that juvenile arrests have declined slightly overall in 2019 compared to last year. “It’s so important that we make policy decisions based in fact, not fear,” Sladja said. “When we use good data, we can find out what’s really going on and use targeted, effective solutions. When we allow ourselves to be driven by fear, we end up with overly broad, ineffective, and often harmful policies.”

The Orleans DA’s office declined to answer questions from The Appeal about the statistics from the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court that purportedly showed a tenfold increase in violent crime committed by young people. But when asked in early June by reporters from about the recent statistics that show youth crime is down based on total arrests, DA spokesperson Ken Daley said “the number of crimes being reported to police give a far better indication of criminal activity trends than arrest totals.” He called it “absurd” and “disingenuous” to suggest otherwise.

At a June 26 meeting of the New Orleans City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, Councilmember At-Large Jason Williams blasted the media for “fear mongering” in its reporting on youth crime and specifically criticized coverage of car burglaries.

“Roughly 66 kids in this community, less than a hundred, have been arrested this year for car burglaries and are in need of the services in this room,” Williams posted on Twitter during the hearing.

“That is doable. That is not the Thunderdome of juveniles running rampant,” he added.

Crime analyst Jeff Asher presented the latest data from the city on youth crime. He noted that arrest numbers have essentially stayed the same over the past couple of years.

The Committee also voted to rename the Youth Study Center to the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center.

For Dwayne, the decision to charge him adult court has significant collateral consequences.

“You’re not just talking about something that will impact your liberty until you’re 21,” said Meredith Angelson, a senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center based in New Orleans.

While adjudications in juvenile court are sealed, Angelson said, a felony  committed by an adult “follows you.”

With an adult felony conviction, Angelson said, people often do not qualify for state or federal assistance programs, cannot live in public housing, have difficulties finding employment, aren’t eligible for certain occupational licenses, and can potentially face mandatory jail time as a second-time offender if they are convicted of additional charges

“That’s further leverage that the DA has on you,” Angelson said.

Krinsky of Fair and Just Prosecution said that when thinking about appropriate consequences for children and how we hold them accountable, we need to ask whether it will put them on a path to become productive members of the community. That includes, Krinsky said, being “very cautious about collateral consequences of a felony conviction,” including probation.

“We’ve developed a system of mass supervision. We supervise individuals for years on end. It doesn’t help them and it doesn’t help the community,” she said.