Juvenile crime is not an epidemic in New Orleans. It is endemic.

Photo Credit: Bart Everson, Flickr Creative Commons

I was surprised to read Big Easy Magazine’s article because as a New Orleans data analyst, I see the numbers and reports every day.

Most auto thefts and car burglaries in the city are committed by juvenile boys. If we are to use this statistic from the data provided in that article, then the charts on the right show that there has been a 121% increase in juvenile arrests for nonviolent offenses from 2018 to 2019, year-to-date. And for violent offenses? The increase for juvenile arrests is up 108% from last year. 

The charts on the left side of this page claim to represent year-to-date data. However, when we compare the left with that on the right, there are discrepancies. The left side states that 2019 non-violent arrests number 290, whereas the right pie chart says 935. Even assuming perhaps the years were mixed up on the right, 2018 gives the number 424.

Since data hasn’t been provided from January through July for previous years, the statistics for 2019 cannot be compared yet.  So let’s examine 2016 through 2018: When we look at the arrest rate for juveniles during this timeframe, the numbers have spiked in every category. Juvenile arrests for nonviolent crimes went up 28%, and violent crime spiked 43% from 2016 to 2018. Nonviolent and violent crimes rise concurrently; for example, it is well documented that during auto burglaries and car thefts, juveniles are looking for guns. Many of these firearms are then used in violent crimes. 

These numbers examine juveniles arrested, which does not account for crimes that actually occurred and/or were not reported. So in reality, crime rates may be much higher than they appear here. One of the difficult things about tracking numbers of juvenile crime and arrests is that data must be aggregated from multiple disjointed systems throughout the city and is limited by privacy issues for minors.  

What’s more, most violent crimes in New Orleans take place over the summer. There are many compounding factors that contribute to this violent crime increase, such as the high temperatures which invoke more aggressive behaviors. Additionally, school is closed during the summer months, leading to more young people outside in public spaces. Many studies have shown that summer jobs for teenagers have greatly reduced arrest rates. The higher the economic inequity, the higher the crime rates, in the US – and worldwide. Race has remained a major factor in economic inequity, as it has historically been a factor in the way the criminal justice system was conceived and continues to operate. With the release of “When They See Us” on Netflix, we are shown how egregiously a criminal case can gain traction against juvenile boys of color, even in the face of zero evidence against them. One can only hope that we are making progress towards a fair justice system that truly upholds the notion that all people are innocent until proven guilty. 

What I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that nearly every day there is another report of juveniles committing violent or nonviolent offenses in New Orleans. Minors are often cycled through jail, come out, and continue right back where they started. You don’t need me to point out all the cases of 12-year-olds committing violent crime, carjackings that turned fatal, or car thefts and burglaries that are often committed by the same teenagers that commit shootings and homicides. Nor do you need me to point out all the innocent people, and particularly people of color, who have been victims of violent crime in this city; some of whom are babies and children. 

The curfew in place in New Orleans has been around for decades. This article attests to a strict curfew enforcement in New Orleans circa 1995. Today’s curfew states that if juveniles are out in public without an adult after 9:00 pm Sunday through Thursday, and after 11:00 pm Friday and Saturday, parents will be called and asked to pick up their children. If a guardian does not answer, the child is brought to the Covenant House. Juveniles are not taken to jail, contrary to popular belief. In most instances this year, children have been taken to their parents, with only a few taken to Covenant House.  None have been arrested.  

The idea behind the effectiveness of a curfew is that if a juvenile can be accounted for in the late evening and early morning hours, they will be less likely to commit or be victims of a crime. Supporters ask why parents wouldn’t want their child home at night.  The NOPD and City have stated on multiple occasions that they are working with juvenile justice partners to come together, look for solutions, and make sure everyone is involved in this process. 

To fix a problem, the first step is admitting there is one. It is easier to glance at numbers and claim that everything is okay, but everything is not okay. So what are the solutions to the juvenile crime problem in New Orleans? 

Surely incarcerating teenagers for life is not an ideal solution. The correlation between neglect, early childhood abuse, and poverty, with risky behavior in adolescence, is clear. Neuroscience studies show that the parts of the brain that are responsible for decision making are not finished developing until age 25, which means that young people have a greater chance of changing their behavior than older adults. Many studies show that jail often only encourages young adults to join gangs and learn the tricks of committing more crimes. 

The first penitentiary in the United States was designed to reform people who had gone astray from societal values and norms. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines penitentiary as, “a state or federal prison for the punishment and reformation of convicted felons.” However, we don’t try to reform anyone anymore. We’ve given up.  On the one side, law enforcement takes a “lock them up and throw away the key” approach. On the other side, progressives refuse to look the problem in the eye, and instead bury their heads in the sand.

It is incumbent for our community to understand the problem in order to truly address it. Many cities use a focused deterrence approach when specifically dealing with people affiliated with gangs. Counseling and outreach programs have been introduced in Orleans Parish, but we are in need of more long-term and short-term solutions. Restorative justice or transformative justice could be introduced if the victim wishes, and often these practices are used in conjunction with the criminal justice system. 

By not acknowledging the problem of juvenile crime in New Orleans, and by failing to provide systematic solutions for healing, we are abandoning not only the juveniles but also the victims and communities experiencing this cycle of violence.

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