PHOTO BY DANIEL X. O'NEIL/CREATIVE COMMONS
New Orleans youth who commit minor offenses could receive a summons or warning instead of an arrest under an ordiannce unanimously passed by the New Orleans City Council Aug. 24.
District A City Councilmember Susan Guidry said the Policing Alternatives for Youth (PAY) ordinance adds "more tools in the tool chests for officers in dealing with our youth" and aids in "preventing unnecessary arrests and their consequences." She called its passage "one of the more exciting moments" in her career on the Council.
The ordinance covers 11 types of misdemeanors
eligible for juvenile warning notices. Offenses eligible for a court summons include any of those 11 offenses after a juvenile already has been issued a warning, outstanding warrants, and traffic violations with the officer's discretion whether the violation rises above a warning.
The laws go into effect Jan. 1 (for warnings) and March 1 (for summonses).
The ordinance also addresses racial disparities for arrests in a city where 96 percent of young people who were arrested in 2016 were Black. Based on intake interviews with 755 youth who entered juvenile court that year, 28 percent were facing charges that the PAY ordinance would make eligible for a summons or warning. Forty-one percent were arrests for simple battery (in which there is no weapon), and 17 percent of arrests were simple marijuana possession, and 12 percent of arrests were for theft, according to Ranord Darensburg, Judicial Administrator at Orleans Parish Juvenile Court.
Three out of every four children arrested in New Orleans "are charged with an offense that involves neither violence nor a gun," according to the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, which argues that young people arrested for low-level offenses are "more likely to drop out of school, re-offend in the future, and be arrested as an adult." The group helped draft the ordinance.
"By keeping low-risk children out of the justice system, and allowing police officers to spend more time on serious crime, the new policy should improve both public safety and children’s lives," the group said in a statement.
Council President Jason Williams said young people should be afforded the same protections from entering the criminal justice system as adults who commit minor offenses, which recent laws have amended.
"It's already happening for adults, but we don't have it for the most fragile members of our community," Williams said. "Equity has to be our goal — should be our goal — especially when it comes to how we administer justice to our children. ... It means treating young black boys and young black girls — this is who we're talking about — the same as their counterparts in the community. [The data] is so telling that we were not doing that."
Rachel Gassert, Policy Director with Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, pointed to the success of similar policies in Florida as well as Minnesotta, Philadelphia, and Baton Rouge, which has instituted a "custodial promise" program in which the guardians of a juvenile offender assure they'll bring them to court.
“This is a policy we as a city can be proud of,” Gassert said in a statement. “Rather than criminalize children, we can now address normal adolescent misbehavior in age-appropriate ways in schools and at home. We’ll be treating kids like kids, and our entire community will benefit from it.”