New Orleans juvenile jail at capacity, using cots for new arrivals
“Prolonged and stalled” adjudication, charges that don’t lead to incarceration and delayed transfers to long-term detention lead to overcrowding at the short-term youth detention center
By Gabriella Killett
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans’ juvenile detention center reached its capacity last week and started using cots to accommodate new violent offenders. The center’s director is now warning that longer holding times at the Gentilly facility have created a crisis that needs to be resolved.
The Juvenile Justice Intervention Center, where arrested youths await release or transfer to juvenile prisons, reached its 76-bed cap on Sept. 20, roughly nine months after juvenile court judges warned the City Council it wasn’t moving people out of the facility faster than they were coming in.
In a Sept. 21 email to Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams, Director Dichelle Williams said that almost two-thirds of the center’s beds are being used for long-term detention “in direct contrast to the fundamental intent to be a short-term facility.”
‘Prolonged and stalled’
There are several factors driving the increasing length of stays and the resulting overcrowding. Juveniles are regularly detained on charges that don’t lead to incarceration, Dichelle Williams wrote, and 30% of the releases over the last 12 months — 163 youths — were instances where the DA’s office decided not to hand out prison time.
In other cases, “the adjudication process has been prolonged and stalled,” and Dichelle Williams wrote charging 9 youths as adults and considering doing so with 29 others have contributed to longer stays.
Aaron Clark-Rizzio, the Co-Executive Director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said that while it’s troubling to hear that cots are now used within the facility, he understands the dilemma jail officials are facing. Clark-Rizzio pointed to incarceration for non-violent crimes as a primary reason for overpopulation in state and local facilities.
“There needs to be a quicker and more immediate response if we want children to change behavior,” Clark-Rizzio said. "(Moving slowly) can send a message that, ‘Oh, maybe people don’t care about this as much as I thought.’
Dichelle Williams argued that even after cases are adjudicated, juveniles often do not move to the long-term facilities run by the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice. Only 27 minors have been transferred to youth prisons after sentencing in the last 12 months, and there have been “multiple cases where youth have completed their sentenced time while still at JJIC.” Seven juveniles are currently awaiting transfer.
The state’s youth prison system has its own overcrowding problem, and a spokesperson with the Office of Juvenile Justice confirmed Tuesday that all of its prison-equivalent secure-care facilities are currently at capacity.
“Historically, youth resided with us for 3 to 6 months allowing a steady flow for new detained youth,” Dichelle Williams wrote of the detention center. “However, today, we find our facility primarily housing youth for over a year, and some even approaching their 2-year mark.
‘A terrible narrative’
Dichelle Williams’ email was written in response to a reply she received from Jason Williams when she asked for recommendations about releasing 11 youths on Sept. 12. Since then, the center has released six juveniles, most of whom are now under juvenile court supervision.
The DA balked at the idea of any release at all, so Dichelle Williams replied by laying out the specifics of the detention center’s overcrowding problem.
Dichelle Williams’ office declined to expound on the details of the email, and the district attorney’s office didn’t immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
Clark-Rizzio argued that a tendency to rely on jail and prison has increased in recent years.
“In the last few years, we’ve seen the reemergence of a terrible narrative about children and especially about black children.
“Many people in leadership from lawmakers to city politicians to people in law enforcement ... have adopted this idea that children are worse now — that the crimes are worse now — and that therefore, a harsher response is necessary.”
‘I have a duty’
Dichelle Williams closed her Sept. 21 email by stressing her office has no intention of releasing anyone unilaterally without the support of juvenile court judges or the district attorney’s office. But she said she has been “attempting to sound the alarm” about the overcrowding problem in hopes of bringing stakeholders together to come up with a solution.
“Our limited bed space cannot accommodate the current population and anticipated new arrests,” he said. “We cannot continue to receive the number of youths we have been without also releasing some.”
For now, she wrote, the center has set up the cots and will simply have to accept the fines and fees levied by the Department of Children and Family Services for violating the agency’s rules governing living standards, which she added could even lead to having the center’s license revoked.
“I have a duty to treat the youth detained at JJIC with dignity and respect and will not jeopardize their wellbeing by allowing a level of inhumane overcrowding,” she wrote.
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