In New Orleans, families are organizing to ensure that a juvenile justice reform law be fully implemented. Learn more in this opinion essay from a leader from Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, a Marguerite Casey Foundation grantee.
The juvenile justice system in New Orleans is broken. All families – Black, Brown, Native, White and Asian – are feeling the effects. If we listen more closely to what families are saying, we’d hear that New Orleans, our city, can be so much stronger. We’d hear that solutions for our youth are possible.
The broken state of our juvenile justice system comes down to policy, promises and commitment. Recently, New Orleans officials have been sending our youth to incarceration more often. They say it’s in response to increased crime – youth breaking into cars, carjacking and a murder. Officials even set a curfew for youth in the city. No one is arguing against public safety. But is locking up youth good for families, the city and our future?
What New Orleans needs is a focus on solutions to systemic problems, rather than symptoms, and policy investments that support families. To understand the broken state of our juvenile justice system, just look at what happened – and didn’t – in the 1990s and the following years.
In 1994, during a tough-on-crime period, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections lobbied successfully for more youth prison beds. As a result, the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth opened in Tallulah, a poor, rural city about 250 miles north of New Orleans. Youth from our city – many of whom were trapped by the constraints of poverty – were sent to the correctional center.
In 2003, state lawmakers passed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act. Known as Act 1225, the law garnered support from families and grassroots organizations. Act 1225 was set to provide more care and support for youth – public dollars for community programs, data sharing, government coordination and better policy practices. Many of us saw it as a real step to reducing youth incarceration, which affects Black and Brown communities disproportionately because of systemic failures.
At about the same time, news stories were exposing cases of violence and corruption at the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth, which closed on June 4, 2004. A year later, Katrina – the Category 5 hurricane – struck New Orleans and the South. The destruction sent families seeking safety, even if that meant moving to other states. Families from low-income neighborhoods in New Orleans suffered. The government disaster response and overall rebuilding were uneven with relief efforts missing neighborhoods with Black families.
After Katrina, Act 1225 never regained the policy prominence and commitment to full implementation that we envisioned in 2003. While some progress has occurred under Act 1225, some parts of the law were repealed. New government officials entered public service, and not all of them were aware of the importance of Act 1225.
Think about juvenile justice reform in the context of New Orleans and families in the South. We’re known worldwide for our food, music, architecture and Mardi Gras. But we’re home to 391,000 people. Three out of every 10 residents are White. Six out of every 10 residents are Black. One in 4 lives, by the federal definition, in poverty. One in 5 is under the age of 18.
Is locking up New Orleans youth what we want for our future? Has any society ever incarcerated its way out of a systemic problem? Shouldn’t we be creating opportunities and solutions instead of barriers?
New Orleans families have a sense of pride, spirit and community like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve been a community organizer for years. I know parents and youth – and all residents – respond positively when they’re included in conversations and their ideas for solutions are heard and, ideally, acted upon. In life, we call this hope.
On June 4, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) joined about 10 other community organizations and held a special anniversary event in New Orleans. We commemorated the 15th anniversary of the closing of the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth by watching the video, “Close Tallulah Now!”
We started coming up with solutions that support our youth, and we talked about how Act 1225 can be fully implemented. We also called on families and grassroots leaders to organize around a renewed effort for our youth. We can’t rely on the system to take care of our children. We need to come together as a community.
As part of this, we’re building an online community-mapping tool to share information about Act 1225, the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission, education and related topics. We hope to create a community board, which would be a coalition of New Orleans grassroots leaders who would prioritize accountability and fully implementing Act 1225.
Like all parents, I know that we owe a full commitment to our youth. As the writer James Baldwin once said: “For these are all our children, we will all profit, or pay for, what they become.”
Gina Womack is executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC). She is a New Orleans native and single mother of three children. The New Orleans-based community organization focuses on creating a better life for all of Louisiana’s youth. Follow FFLIC on Twitter at @fflicla. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America.