NEW ORLEANS YOUTH CRIME: THE EPIDEMIC THAT WASN’T

By Mike Hayes, The Appeal

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro                                                                                                                            Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from the Orleans Parish DA website.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from the Orleans Parish DA website.

In December 2018, New Orleans teens Brandon Dean and Dwayne Fortenberry navigated a Mazda SUV through the Gentilly neighborhood when they ran a red light and crashed at an intersection. 

When a woman driving a red Hyundai stopped to make sure they were okay, Brandon pulled a handgun from his waistband, and they forced their way into her car. The teenagers then ordered the driver to take them to the Upper Ninth Ward. Their escape plan failed; they were arrested and later charged with felony kidnapping.

In court, the carjacking victim, a 38-year-old woman, told the judge that she was terrified during the encounter. She said that Brandon, while wielding the gun, just stared at her coldly. But the victim also said that Dwayne apologized to her repeatedly during the incident while telling her that he was scared, too.

In April, Brandon, 17, pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree kidnapping and possession of a stolen firearm. In accordance with the victim’s wishes and because of his cooperation with police, 15-year-old Dwayne entered a guilty plea to an amended charge of simple kidnapping. 

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro could have charged Dwayne as a juvenile but instead decided to prosecute his case in adult court. Dwayne faced up to five years in prison, but in May he was sentenced to probation. 

“I’ve said for months that violent juvenile offenders pose the greatest crime problem New Orleans faces in 2019,” Cannizzaro said in a statementannouncing the teens’ guilty pleas. “The catch-and-release approach being pushed by some is failing these at-risk children and backfiring dangerously upon our citizens.”

For months, the Orleans DA has pushed a message that youth crime is not just rising in New Orleans but is at “epidemic” levels while using rhetoric—“this city is creating a brazen population of delinquent teens emboldened by the lack of meaningful consequences for their criminal behavior”—reminiscent of the “superpredator” scare of the 1990s.

In mid-May, Cannizzaro announced an eight-point plan to curb youth crime, which he said would include strict curfew enforcement for young people. 

Mayor LaToya Cantrell has supported Cannizzaro’s crusade for tougher enforcement against children, too. In late May, Cantrell announced that the city and New Orleans police would enforce curfew for any young people out past 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays (8 p.m. when school is in session). Parents of those who repeatedly break curfew can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined $500. The same week, Cantrell announced that the city would begin to move some young people to the adult jail while their cases are pending to alleviate overcrowding at the Youth Study Center. In the first week of June, six young people were placed in Orleans Justice Center. 

Cantrell’s office confirmed that the Orleans DA’s office is charging all six as adults, and said that no other children have been sent to the adult jail since this first wave of transfers.

“The most appropriate facility should be evaluated based on the facts of each particular case,” the mayor’s spokesperson, Michael Tidwell, told The Appeal. “Mayor Cantrell is deeply committed to an approach to juvenile justice that results in better outcomes for everyone impacted.” 

Tidwell added that it is the mayor’s position that when individuals have committed violent crimes and have pleaded to or been indicted on adult charges “moving them out of the Youth Study Center is necessary.”

However, numerous studies have shown that children charged as adults are far more likely to reoffend than those who enter the juvenile system. One 2003 study in Pennsylvania found that children charged as adults were twice as likely to be rearrested within 18 months than children charged in juvenile court.

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Olivia McDowellComment