March 15, 2016
Crime in New Orleans is a cancer eating away at the fabric of our community, and we are all its victims. Many factors are to blame and, given the size and dimension of the problem, solving crime is a seemingly insurmountable task. In the ten years since Katrina, however, we as a city are enacting positive change rather than accepting the status quo. The Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s (DA) policy on youth transfers is one such area where we can make a change that will reduce crime and strengthen our city.
A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the DA’s Office is referring 80% of children accused of certain statutorily specified crimes to adult criminal court, which is more than twice that of the parish with the second highest rate. The report, More Harm Than Good, details how “Cannizzaro’s use of default transfer is unfair and ineffective – it fails to protect public safety, conserve public dollars, or respond appropriately to juvenile crime.”
This is an alarming public safety concern. Simply put, processing children as adults worsens criminal behavior. Overwhelming research and data, both local and national, demonstrates that children processed through the juvenile system are far less likely to recidivate. When children are processed through the adult system, they often receive the same penalties they would have in the juvenile system, but they are denied the rehabilitative services that can make all the difference in altering the trajectories of their lives.
Undoubtedly, the youth in question are charged with serious crimes, and there are real victims and families suffering as a result of their actions. Making victims whole is an important and necessary part of the justice system, and that is not in question. Many children in the system are also suffering as victims of crimes. This is not an excuse. However, the cycle of violence must end somewhere, and we will not achieve safety in our communities until we address all the factors that contribute to crime. We cannot prevent future victims and heal our children unless we are making informed decisions about how each child can best be rehabilitated.
Of course there will be instances where, even with a careful screening process in place, the juvenile system will not be deemed the appropriate place for prosecution. The proposed resolution, which we support, allows for the legal fact that murders, rapes, and aggravated kidnapping are automatically transferred to adult court and even beyond that, that some children whom the DA has discretion to transfer will in fact be transferred. The concern, at this moment, is that the juvenile system is being ruled out at rates that are far too high for the safety of our youth, our community, and anyone who visits or loves the City of New Orleans. It’s also one of the reasons why the percentage of youth involved with the justice system in New Orleans is so racially disparate.
Recognizing the problem with the DA’s youth transfer policy, Councilmember Susan Guidry, the Chair of the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, introduced a resolution asking the DA to more carefully screen the youth he seeks to transfer to adult court, rather than transferring most of them by default, as well as to report to the Council on data regarding these transfers. The resolution seeks a common sense process and enables us to make data-driven decisions in the future that better serve public safety and justice.
We, the undersigned, support the City Council’s effort to address this problematic policy, and urge the DA to consider the circumstances of each child’s life in addition to the facts of each case. Judges already do this for 14 year olds under state law, and the DA should do the same with children who are 15 and 16 years old.
Urban League of Greater New Orleans
Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights
Voice of the Ex-Offender, Norris Henderson
Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies
Rev. Dwight Webster, PhD, Senior Pastor, Christian Unity Baptist Church
Jesuit Social Research Institute/Loyola University New Orleans
Southern Poverty Law Center
Hamilton Simons-Jones, Verbena Group
Campaign for Youth Justice
Stacy Overstreet, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Psychology, Tulane University
American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana
Orleans Public Defenders
Retired Judge Calvin Johnson
Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center