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Disrupting Inequity to Heal, not Harm: Transforming NOLA’s Juvenile Justice System

By Leticia Peguero on December 11, 2015

Previously in this blog series, we learned how grantee partners BreakOUT! and YEP are creating a more equitable New Orleans through their individual work and collectively as partners. Now, we shift our focus to another partner that has also been actively engaged in local collaborative work—Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (LCCR). LCCR works to defend the rights of Louisiana’s most vulnerable children through direct service and legal advocacy strategies.

Louisiana is known as the “world’s prison capital” because it imprisons more people per capita than any other state or country in the world, with one out of every 86 adults behind bars. New Orleans also has one of the highest murder rates per capita in the country. Both of these issues disproportionately and adversely affect young people of color. The harm that is inflicted on these communities is not irreparable, but it takes leaders who are willing to disrupt these broken systems. Disrupting this kind of inequity requires the cultivation of a new generation of leaders who have a catalytic mindset and a commitment to grassroots innovation that is deeply rooted in the voices of those most impacted. As we know, those most impacted are closest to the answers. LCCR approaches their work with these two fundamental principles in mind. They ensure that the voices of the young people are core to informing their practices and policies. LCCR has also developed an interdisciplinary team of leaders that are focused on using their skills and expertise to defend children, build opportunities and transform the juvenile justice system as they break the cycle of inequity for New Orleans’ youth.

“We build opportunities so that young people don’t fall into the juvenile justice system. If they do, then we defend them. We’re standing up for their right to fairness, dignity and opportunity.”
Josh Perry, LCCR Executive Director

As the juvenile public defender in New Orleans, LCCR works with almost all youth who are arrested in the city. In order to best serve the needs of these young people, LCCR developed an integrated approach called The Children’s Defense Team. A dedicated case manager, social worker, attorney and investigator serve every child. Together they empower youth in court, at home and at school. The team is trained to recognize and address their young clients’ trauma and respond appropriately with evidence-based services and support. They work with young people from the beginning of their justice system involvement and connect them with community-based services that contribute to positive long-term outcomes.

When young people are incarcerated, LCCR fights for their release through the Second Chances Project. Under state law, youth are allowed to come home on supervised release if they have demonstrated positive development and a commitment to change. However, the only way to attain early release is through an attorney who can demonstrate these qualities to a judge. Unfortunately, LCCR has discovered that many incarcerated youth across Louisiana have no real legal representation. LCCR believes this lack of access is not only unjust but also unconstitutional. That is why they are aggressively expanding the program so that every incarcerated New Orleans child has a dedicated legal advocate by their side until their release.

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LCCR believes that not only is legal representation a fundamental right, it is also a cost effective alternative to incarceration. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice, Louisiana spends more than $150,000 to incarcerate one young person per year. Avoiding unnecessary prison time would save Louisiana millions of dollars as well as provide better outcomes for young people and their communities. Releasing formerly incarcerated youth into their communities with age- and culturally-appropriate reentry supports has been proven to reduce recidivism rates by as much as 20 percent.

LCCR understands that responding to youth crime with automatic incarceration is not good for people or public policy. Research has shown us that incarceration does not make communities safer and fails to rehabilitate youth. The data supports LCCR’s evidence-based direct service model and validates the organization’s fight for systems-level change to create a more fair justice system.

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While Louisiana’s youth incarceration rate has dropped substantially in the past 20 years, there is still an over-reliance on imprisonment. More than half of the young people incarcerated in the state today were committed for nonviolent offenses. LCCR backs common-sense policy reforms that would offer community-based services as an alternative to incarceration for these young people, saving the state public dollars it can reinvest elsewhere. LCCR is leading a campaign to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18, minimize the use of shackles on young people in court and remove all children from adult prisons—such as the notorious Orleans Parish Prison.

In addition to legal advocacy and direct service, youth opportunity building rounds out LCCR’s core offering. LCCR understands that building opportunity for vulnerable youth cannot be done alone. It takes a comprehensive approach to make a sustainable impact.

“In Post-Katrina New Orleans, people realize that in order to be effective in the communities we serve requires collaboration. It’s survival. We need to work together in order to achieve our missions.”
Josh Perry, LCCR Executive Director

Perhaps the reason why our New Orleans-based grantee partners are so comfortable working together is because they all come from the same root. Each organization branched off the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), which pushed for significant juvenile justice reform in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

While they approach youth justice work in different ways, our partners are able to leverage each other’s strengths to empower opportunity youth. Evidence of BreakOUT!, Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) and LCCR’s collective impact can be seen within various organizational programs.

BreakOUT! offers LCCR staff training that is respectful of LGBTQ youth needs. They also recently worked together to advocate against the building of a new juvenile justice prison in the area. LCCR often refers its young clients to educational and reentry supports provided by YEP—LCCR is a frequent referrer of youth to YEP’s Youth Futures Initiative program. BreakOUT!’s Posh Academy is made possible by YEP’s high school credential preparation program.

There is a unique camaraderie among these organizations that is clearly focused on disrupting the inequity that exists for young people in New Orleans and creating community that is meant to heal not harm.

Andrus Family Fund is proud to support all of our regional grantee partners as they work to create a more equitable New Orleans for its youth.

In our next blog series, we’ll meet grantee partners that are creating career pathways for opportunity youth across the country.