Juvenile offender’s case has become fodder for a political battle between the Mayor and the powerful elite set on disparaging her at all cost . . . and that’s a problem

A little over a week ago critics and the local mainstream media found yet another reason to pounce on New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

This time it was her presence during the juvenile court proceedings of a 14-year-old who, as we have learned, was a part the City’s Pathways Youth Internship Program, a diversion program designed to teach life skills and work readiness to young people who have come in contact with the juvenile justice system.

Pathways is a program of the Office of Youth and Family Services, a department created by the Mayor because she understands that at-risk families and children throughout New Orleans need a support system—a network of agencies and resources to help them navigate challenges while providing access and opportunities that help improve the well-being of the city’s most vulnerable youth.

Mayor Cantrell says she is “intentional about meeting young people and there parents where they are.”

Well, on this particular day, this 14-year-old boy was in court, awaiting sentencing for his part in several robberies that occurred last September when he was 13 years old. And the Mayor met them there.

Quite frankly, she had every right to be there. She is the Mayor of New Orleans, true. But she is an adult — a grown woman. And she does not have to clear her itinerary with the public, despite what some seem to think.

First, y’all mad because she travels. It is a part of her job, whether y’all like it or not. We are tired of saying that.

Then, y’all want to know why she is at the Fillmore at a rap concert. It aintcha’ business. But she is the mother of a teenage a daughter, and it is not uncommon for a parent to accompany a young teen to a concert. We don’t know for sure that this was the case — just speculation. Maybe the Mayor is just a Rob49 fan. That aintcha’ business either.

Y’all mad because you don’t see her enough. Mad because you see her too much.

Now, y’all mad—big mad—because she was seated in a juvenile courtroom located in the city of which she serves as Mayor.

On the day in question, she decided that she wanted this 14-year-old boy to know that although he made a poor decision, she still believes in his potential and that this is not the end for him. He is not the crime he committed. He still has a future, and if he wants to change his life, he can. By the way, for those of you too stubborn, obtuse or vindictive to get it, that is what her presence in Judge Renord Darensburg’s courtroom showed that young man. That was the message it sent to him and to anyone else not on the “Get LaToya Cantrell” train.

And that message matters way more than what those of you who will never be satisfied with anything Mayor Cantrell says or does. The bottom line is we will take giving a 14-year-old boy hope over optics any day.

Still, sitting with the family of the youth was a move not taken well by some of the victims of the young boy’s crime, who were also in the courtroom. Of course, we appreciate and understand the feelings a crime victim might have. They have been through a traumatic experience. They feel violated. They want justice. We get it.

But that does not give anyone the right to dictate where Mayor Cantrell should or should not be or who she can and cannot show up for. Quite frankly, to take her appearance in that courtroom as a personal attack or affront against crime victims or as anything else other than what was—follow-up on a 14-year-old boy who is a participant in City-sanctioned diversion program designed to serve youth who obviously need all the support and guidance they can get—is histrionics. Yep, some of y’all are so over-the-top in your campaign to malign this Mayor, specifically, and Black leadership, in general, that your unrestrained melodrama over every move she makes has become a real sideshow.

Are y’all actually mad because she wanted a 14-year-old boy and his family to know that this didn’t have to be the end of his road . . . that he still has a chance? Well guess what? We don’t throw children away because of a bad decision. We don’t do that—not even in New Orleans.

But the naysayers could not wait to use this as another opportunity to attack the Mayor and, by extension, they have cast aspersion on the outcome of the case. Everyone is talking about the optics—it just doesn’t look right—the Mayor of a city facing challenges in crime and public safety sitting in the courtroom with the family of a 14-year-old who is about to be sentenced for a crime. And they are questioning if her presence impacted the sentence.

“Mayor Cantrell sides with criminals,” they exclaim.

“She has turned her back on victims,” they say.

“She has betrayed the citizens of New Orleans; and she, alone, is the reason New Orleans is going to hell.”

We have heard all of that and more—rhetorical hyperbole that, while it may further a nefarious agenda, is too outlandish for us to take seriously.

Supporting this boy and his family does not mean Mayor Cantrell has turned her back on crime victims.

Sane people not trying to push a political agenda understand that just because a person appears in court in support of a criminal defendant does not mean they condone the defendant’s crime or crime in general. It does not mean they believe that the person should not be punished for the act. Neither does it mean that they hate crime victims.

Because the machine that has been mobilized to attack Mayor Cantrell and Black leadership in New Orleans refuses to cut it out, we are going to keep calling it out.

Y’all need to stop with your hypocritical, two-faced, duplicitous whining and complaining.

Optics? That’s what y’all worried about—how something looks or appears?

Well, it looks like New Orleans doesn’t care about the children of this city or the rise in juvenile crime at all. Earlier this year, fewer than 25,000 people even bothered to show up to vote on a ballot measure for a millage to raise revenue to fund about 1,500 new early childhood education seats in New Orleans. This was the second time this measure had come before New Orleanians, having been voted down previously, ostensibly, because it was tied to other measures that the public did not approve. Anyway, the early childhood education millage was pulled out as a stand-alone item and placed before the voters a second time. And still, fewer than 25,000 even cared enough to vote. More than 9,000 of those voters said “NO” to early childhood education (ECE) opportunities for three- and four-year-olds, whose families otherwise could not afford it, despite all the research that says ECE programs are what gives young children the best chance at being successful later on in school and in life. In other words, if you want to really tackle crime—start there. Uh, let’s put this another way: When y’all start caring about the most vulnerable children in New Orleans and showing it, maybe then you can whine about a 14-year-old boy getting probation for a crime he committed when he was 13.

Y’all couldn’t even show up in a real way to fund a meager 1,500 early childhood education seats, but you are ready to throw a 14-year-old boy in jail for one bad choice. If we are going to talk optics . . . if you’re going to talk about the things that don’t look right, let’s start there. New Orleans will stay mired in crime and violence until the connection between education, opportunity and crime is made.

If all of that clamoring about where and with whom Mayor Cantrell was sitting in the courtroom wasn’t ridiculous enough, it was quickly followed by outrage over the 14-year-old receiving a three-year suspended sentence.

As we understand it, Judge Darensburg was well within both the letter and spirit of the law when he suspended the sentence of this youthful offender.

Yes, a suspended sentence means no jail time, but it is still punishment. This boy has requirements he has to meet. He is, no doubt, on probation and assigned to a program for monitoring and regular update on his actions and progress. The fact that the local mainstream media has yet to make that clear in any of reports is maddening. So-called journalists writing this story as if this child has gotten off scot-free because Mayor Cantrell was there is ridiculous. He has not.

Moreover, Judge Darensburg has made it clear that his ruling was not influenced by the Mayor’s presence. Judge Darensburg’s background as a social worker gives him a unique perspective and insight. He understands that rehabilitation and redirection of youthful offenders is often not found behind bars. Why do you think there is so much trouble at the Bridge City Center for Youth?

The sentence Judge Darensburg handed down gives this 14-year-old boy the opportunity to get it right. Hell, it gives the rest of us a chance to get it right too, especially those of us in positions of power and policymaking. We now have the chance to work hard to ensure that the equity and opportunity that is critical to the success of our children is real and abundant.

Melissa Haley, president of the National Association of Black Social Workers says, “Maybe if we had more social workers dealing with our children in the juvenile justice system, we would not the problems we have. The statistics have already shown us that we are not going to incarcerate our way out of crime. We need to invest our way into education. We need to invest in social service programs that help people.”

Haley says she has been especially concerned by the rhetoric surrounding this case, particularly from those upset that this child has the chance to avoid incarceration and stay connected with his family—factors that actually strengthen the likelihood that he will walk a better path and not re-offend.

“This was a 13-year-old boy (when he committed the crime). It really bothers me that some people believe that the only solution for this child is jail,” she continues. “We have people serving long jail terms and once they get out they become even more marginalized. They can’t get funding to go to college. They can’t get a decent job or a decent place to live. We cannot use our children and our community as pawns in political games. That’s problematic.”

Indeed, it is.

The New Orleans Tribune

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