New Orleans Juvenile Court notes

Courtney Murphy [University of Pittsburgh School of Law 2L, in New Orleans]: "Like so much in New Orleans, both pre- and post-Katrina, the Juvenile Court system is a dichotomy, its two faces coexisting uneasily. Looking at the system as it is now, I feel hope and also an overwhelming despair.

Our supervisor is with the Juvenile Court in order to reform the system and make New Orleans a model juvenile justice system. Because they are starting almost from scratch, this is the perfect time to introduce such a program. To that end, the Student Hurricane Network volunteers (6 of us) were mostly assigned to research and summarize various model systems around the country. The facts and figures that we dealt with were somewhat sobering at times (juvenile incarceration rates, etc) but the work itself was mostly positive. The programs we were reading about produced results, and implementing them in New Orleans can only be an improvement. We were generating things that will be used to make the system in New Orleans better. That is a good feeling…

But things are not good yet. The court is facing severe staffing shortages. More than 2/3 of the staff was laid off after the hurricane, though reminders of them were everywhere, including in the clerks' office, where we worked a lot of the time. It is really bizarre to sit at the desk of an employee that hasn't been cleaned out yet, pictures and other personal belongings still there — when they left work on Friday, August 26th, they had no idea that they wouldn't be back on Monday. In the clerks' office, there are stations for 10 or 12 people, but there are only two people currently working in that office. The workload has exploded for them.

The court proceedings themselves are continuing, though because of big caseloads in the District Attorney's office and shortages of public defenders, judges are limited to holding court one day per week. We were invited to sit in on one judge's proceedings on Thursday. This was a tough couple of hours for me.

Things started with a bang — the first juvenile on the docket was caught in a lie to the judge, and sentenced to 30 days for perjury. He was handcuffed right away, and what was heartbreaking to me was the fact that he knew just what to do with his hands… he was ready to be cuffed almost before the bailiff stood up. Fifteen or sixteen, he had been in juvenile detention before, and was an old hand at the procedures. He stayed in the courtroom, handcuffed, until our group left, and for who knows how long after.

An interesting aspect of these proceedings was one of the motivational devices that the judge used to keep the juveniles in line, if they were released to their parents' custody. A juvenile released to his parents' custody is under house arrest, only allowed to go to school. If the juvenile is out of his parent's supervision and rearrested, the parent(s) would also be incarcerated. If the child skips school, he spends a day in jail, and so does the parent. If the child is suspended, he goes to jail (three days per one day of suspension), and the parent either attends school on those days, or volunteers at the school. This is a tough system, and I am of two minds as to its effectiveness. On one hand, it may serve as a motivator: the parents have a much higher stake in fulfilling their responsibility to the child and will maybe make the effort to do so. Also, maybe the child will start to understand accountability, if it is not just him being punished for his transgressions — it is his mother or father, and maybe his younger siblings or grandparents by extension. On the other hand, if a child is 16, with only a single mother raising him, has been out of control for five years or more, and outweighs his mother by 100 pounds, how is she supposed to exert control over him? Should she be incarcerated, absences risking her job and perhaps leaving younger children uncared-for? How exactly does this benefit the juvenile justice system as a whole? I really don't know, but it is a concept that makes an observer, and probably a lot of parents, consider some hard questions.

The hurricane wasn't far from the scene at any point in the courtroom. There were several cases on the docket whose subject had not been located, kids on probation, and kids who were to be tried. Some just haven't resurfaced, and for various reasons there hadn't been a major effort on the part of the juvenile court to find them (probation officer shuffling, an understaffed DA's office, etc). There were others, though, whose probation officers had searched for them, going through the databases available, checking with FEMA and other agencies, and they still hadn't turned up. So either these juveniles really don't want to be found, and are doing a remarkably good job of staying hidden, or, well, that other possibility… especially when the last known address was in the Lower Ninth Ward.

The city as a whole is much the same way. There are many reasons to hope, and still lots of sights and realizations that can lead to despair. During my visit, I was able to see several of my old friends, and hear stories of Tulane Law School running a high speed. Many of my favorite places have reopened, the St. Patrick's Day parade rolled, and the progress I noted since my last short visit in December was great to see. But there are the small things — a favorite bar boarded up, and obviously not coming back, massive traffic jams where there are no working signals — that are reminders that things are not okay. And then there are the large things — Lakeview, the Lower Ninth, all of St. Bernard's Parish — that are still there, the wounds still raw, the wreckage still sitting.

It seems fitting that the Juvenile Court is exhibiting the same study in contrasts. I, for one, am choosing hope for them and the city. The system the JC is working to implement has worked elsewhere, and with time they will be modified (and staffed!) to work in New Orleans. As for the city, time is the balm that it needs also. More people are returning every month, and it seems like the Federal Government is inching closer to giving the disaster areas everything they need.

There are reasons to hope, and many of them. So long as the hard moments are outnumbered by the hopeful ones, the New Orleans Juvenile Court and the city of New Orleans will continue on the road to reform and recovery, both ending up better than they were before."

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