NOLA Youth Demand Change in Juvenile Justice

Dana Kaplan is executive director of Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.  She spoke with me about her work.

Can you tell me what Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana's greatest accomplishments have been over the past five years?

JJPL started in 1997.  However, the five years since Hurricane Katrina almost feel like a new era.  We’re extremely proud of some of our   accomplishments since then, like helping to secure the release over 150 young people held in detention during the Hurricane, and releasing “Treated Like Trash,” an account of the botched evacuation of these youth and others from the city.  We also launched Juvenile Regional Services, a model juvenile public defender office that has transformed juvenile indigent defense in the city.  Alongside Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children and other partner organizations, we helped to rewrite the Orleans Parish Recovery School District (RSD) Discipline Policy to reduce the number of suspendable and expellable offenses, and helped to reduce the number of security officers in high schools by one-third and in elementary schools by one half.

One of our greatest accomplishments has also been the launching of Young Adults Striving for Success (YASS), an organizing project.  The group started when we filed a federal class action lawsuit on conditions of confinement at the Youth Study Center, New Orleans’ juvenile jail. A number of incarcerated youth who were plaintiffs got involved in the campaign for reform.  Many of them continued to work with us after their release and wanted to take on other social issues they were grappling with post-Katrina New Orleans.  From there, YASS was born, and they have added a whole new dimension to JJPL’s work.

How does JJPL engage young people to help transform Louisiana's brutal and punitive juvenile justice system?

Youth have always been involved in some aspect of our work, but with the development of YASS, it has become its own full-fledged program.  Initially, YASS worked with JJPL and other organizations in the city on the campaign to close the Youth Study Center, hosting DJ parties as outreach events and testifying before the City Council about their experiences in the facility.  Since then, they have hosted two Youth Summits, with participation of youth from Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama.  They also just launched a campaign to reform the school security policies at the Recovery School District, an issue that was brought to the forefront after a six-year-old was handcuffed and shackled by a security officer at his elementary school.  While JJPL joined the Southern Poverty Law Center in a lawsuit on behalf of that child, YASS launched an organizing campaign to make schools more supportive and safe in New Orleans.

Youth are also involved in other aspects of JJPL’s work. Via internships and volunteering, young people learn about everything we do, from fundraising to learning about the State Capitol and the law.  JJPL is also committed to including incarcerated youth in our work, seeking their input on reform recommendations and amplifying their stories and voices in our publications and reports.

Fundamentally, JJPL’s belief is that we won’t see the change necessary in the juvenile or criminal justice systems if we aren’t building the political power of those most disenfranchised– poor communities and in particular communities of color.  It’s why working with and empowering youth is so important to us in our work, as well as our partnerships with organizations like FFLIC, Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), and members of other youth organizing groups in New Orleans.

What effect does youth involvement in JJPL advocacy have on the individual? Policy makers?

Incarcerated youth and those on the outside become better advocates for themselves when they work with JJPL.  Rather than relying on others, we’ve seen young people find their voice and use it to make change for themselves and for their communities – which is incredibly powerful to watch.

For the policy makers, it has also made a difference.  I’ve seen elected officials become incredibly moved when they hear first-hand stories from young people caught up in the system that they themselves become more involved.  Whether it’s at City Council meetings or talking with the media, youth that we work with have absolutely been some of the most effective messengers in building broad coalitions and getting some of the most unlikely allies on board.

The five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the floods just passed.  Can you tell us about some of the emotions evoked by this event?

There’s been a lot of reflection leading up to the anniversary, with both a mixture of hope and optimism about what’s been accomplished, as well as recognition of how much work remains to be done and how challenging it is to get there.

For the anniversary of the Hurricane, we are releasing a report called “From Trash to Triumph,” which is a re-release of the original “Treated Like Trash” study about youth trapped in Orleans Parish Prison during the storm, alongside a history of the efforts to reform juvenile detention in New Orleans since then.  After the release of the first report, the Sheriff said he would never again house youth who were in the custody of the juvenile justice system at his facility.  Our litigation against the detention center resulted in a settlement agreement that fundamentally improves conditions for youth, including mandated schooling, recreation time, counseling and mental health services, and increased programming.  The new administration is reform-minded and is in the process of implementing real change.   However, reform is far from complete, and the report offers a number of solutions for what still needs to happen in this city, including more support for alternatives to detention programs for youth.

What should we expect from JJPL in the next  five years?

We're hoping to see YASS continue to grow, and, alongside our partner organizations, reduce suspension and expulsion rates in the New Orleans school system.

Right now, we’re focused on the 65 individuals eligible for relief under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Sullivan and Graham v. Florida, a case that found it unconstitutional to incarcerate children for life without parole for non-homicide offenses.  We are also working alongside Citizens for Second Chances, an organization of families of children serving life without parole, and our faith and community partners to lay the foundation for broader reform to keep children in the juvenile justice system, as is most appropriate.

We have the opportunity to see real reform if we work collectively to build the power of grassroots communities, in coordination with strategic litigation and policy work.  I’m hopeful that five years from now we’ll see reduced incarceration rates, more community services, and increased political power for low-income communities and communities of color in the Deep South.  That would be an invaluable victory for all of us.

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In the five years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the levees broke, residents have developed innovative approaches to tackling some of the city’s—and the nation’s—most persistent problems: criminal justice reform, unresponsive government, and racial and economic inequality.  In recognition of these efforts, during the month of August the Open Society Blog shines a light on people and organizations in New Orleans bringing change from within one of the country’s most important cities.

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I have a great love of the law and for those who are just. We sometimes forget that the law was sent for the sake of man and not man for the sake of the law. As our society gets older we lose sight of who we will leave all this to very shortly and would rather blame the youth for going wrong when we have failed to make a just place for them. They will succeed in spite of my inability to show them how. THANK YOU for showing them the way beyond the mess I left for them.You don't have any idea how much you mean to me.

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