Storm Opens Doors to ‘change the things we did wrong’

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Simon Gonsoulin and David Bell saw different things happening in juvenile justice before Katrina came ashore. But ask either how the storm affected the system, and they’ll tell you the same thing: It may have been the best thing that ever happened to juvenile justice in Louisiana.

Before Katrina, Gonsoulin, director of the state Office of Youth Development, believed the state was moving toward its goal of reinventing its juvenile justice system – albeit slowly. The number of youth in the state’s three secure facilities was declining.

But in pre-Katrina New Orleans, Juvenile Court Judge David Bell saw a worsening picture. In just eight months before the storm, 5,000 juveniles were arrested. Of those who appeared before the city’s six juvenile judges, 25 were later murdered.

“It was a blessing to the court and to the system,” Bell says of the storm. With the flow of youth into the system reduced to a trickle, the judges had time to reduce the backlog of existing cases by a staggering 94 percent.

“But for the hurricane,” Bell says, “we never would have had the opportunity to change the things we did wrong.”

“They have a very unique opportunity, like no other place I’ve seen,” says Bart Lubow, a senior program associate for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. State and city leaders were “dealing with a system that even they were highly critical of. The challenge is always that you have the old system to run while you develop the new one. But they can basically build from scratch.”

Not all stakeholders in the system are convinced the opportunity will be seized. “It’s not happening yet,” says Melissa Sawyer, executive director of the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), a nonprofit that helps youths re-enter the community after serving time in detention. “People here are really averse to change, and what people tell you here is not always true.”

Building a New Model

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco took office in 2004 promising to get serious about reforming the state-run correctional facilities for adjudicated juveniles and reducing the number of youth they house. That year, the state closed its juvenile correctional facility in Tallulah, notorious for its incidents of fighting among youth and for guards who were quick to use their fists.

In 2004, the legislature approved Blanco’s plan to separate the system from adult corrections, creating the OYD to oversee its administration. Blanco tapped Gonsoulin as OYD’s first director.

The reform plan called for an overhaul of the Bridge City Center for Youth, the smallest of OYD’s juvenile correctional facilities, located just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. The state would use the so-called “Missouri model” with Bridge City’s 70 youths, employing small, secure facilities that have high-quality services, are close to the youths’ homes and are used only when alternative sentencing options are deemed useless. Gonsoulin calls the state’s version Lamod, for “Louisiana model.”

But as Katrina approached, OYD evacuated Bridge City’s youth to another juvenile correctional facility: Jetson, in Baton Rouge. The evacuation plan went off without a hitch and local advocates lauded OYD’s speedy efforts to re-connect Bridge City youth and their families.

(On the other hand, the city’s evacuation of its juvenile detention center, which housed mostly pre-adjudicated youth, was far from praiseworthy. The plan was to release low-level offenders from the Youth Study Center to their families and move the other youths and those not picked up by their parents to a National Guard base. Instead, the youths landed at the Orleans Parish Prison, where they shared space with adult convicts and were trapped by flood waters that rose to chest level. The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana chronicles the experience in a report, “Treated Like Trash,” at

It was November before another youth set foot in Bridge City. Until then they remained at Jetson. Although a basic tenet of the Missouri system is a low number of youth in each dorm, Gonsoulin says, “We had a big overabundance of kids in every dorm. We had kids just staying in the gym. So we definitely struggled to keep [the reform model] going.”

He says the governor called him and the rest of her cabinet together shortly after the storm. “She told us, ‘We’ve been dealt an awful hand here. We have got to turn it into an opportunity.’”

For OYD, he says, the opportunity became clear immediately. Its biggest challenge at Bridge City was that the steady flow of youth inmates made it difficult to make the structural changes needed to adhere to the reform model.

That flow stopped with the exodus of families who lost homes and jobs after Katrina. Before the storm, the center typically held 75 youth. When the facility reopened in November, it held 36.

OYD used the break to conform the rest of the dorms to its new Lamod standards and to build three more, with U.S. Department of Justice funds that were originally earmarked for more cellblocks. OYD created two Lamod dorms at Jetson as well.

Katrina left a new struggle, however: finding workers. “The dearth of work force in the Crescent City is such that McDonald’s and Burger King offer workers signing bonuses,” Gonsoulin says. He says the number of staff at Bridge City shrank from 157 before the storms to 127 today. He needs to reach 147 by next spring.

The staff shortage “has impeded our progress with the remodeling of Bridge City,” Gonsoulin concedes.

Freeing Kids

While the state’s effort to change directions centered on its facility closest to New Orleans, the system in New Orleans Parish gave judges limited options, and the docket was clogged with more youth than the city could effectively serve.

Last September, the juvenile court became the first court in the city to resume running, Bell says. There were few actual cases to handle, with the city still largely vacant. Even now, few youth are coming before Bell and his five juvenile court colleagues. As of mid-August, about 170 youth had been arrested since Katrina.

With little adjudicating to do, Bell says, it was time to clean out the city’s staggering backlog of 26,500 open juvenile cases.

Bell and the other judges brought together representatives from all of the system’s stakeholders: OYD, the Office of Community Services, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices, the police and the public schools. Says Bell, “We said, ‘We’re going through these files, screen them, and find out who’s eligible for probation termination, alternative sentencing or modifications, and early release.’ ”

Bell drew together 80 volunteers, including local attorneys and law students from around the country, to tackle the job. He says they worked 12-hour days from September to December to identify youth whose cases could be closed.

Phase two, Bell says, was to track down those who remained on probation – many of whom had gone out of state – and see if they intended to return. Gonsoulin and OYD have tracked down about 60 percent of the 960 youth who were on probation when Katrina struck, either by contacting their families or by hearing from cities that reported that the youth had shown up in their school or justice systems.

As for the other 40 percent, Gonsoulin says, “We don’t know where they are, and let’s be honest – they’re not exactly looking for us.”

That’s how the parish reduced its juvenile caseload from 26,500 to 1,600 in less than four months. Between the slashed backlog and the dearth of new cases, Bell says, “I feel like we’re providing a better quality of service to the people who appear before us. We have a better ability to manage these kids.”

The caseload reduction is not an end in itself. It should allow for systemic reforms, which entail working with outside experts, implementing their recommendations and re-training staff.

The objective is to keep as many youth as possible out of the detention centers, which Bell likens to medieval dungeons. He fears that without reform, the system will fall back on its old modus operandi: “The more beds you have, the more you use.”

He heralds the court’s work with the Casey Foundation, which last month named New Orleans as one of five Lousiana sites in its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. The site team for the state initiative, led by W. Haywood Burns Institute Executive Director James Bell, will provide the city with training and technical assistance.

People in the state’s juvenile justice circle don’t doubt the intentions of Gonsoulin and Judge Bell. “Simon is a new breed of leader that wants to do what’s in the system’s best interests,” says Southern University professor John Penny, an expert on Louisiana juvenile justice. “And we expect big things” from Bell.

But will their plans for wholesale reform come to fruition? “I have reservations,” Penny says.

Sawyer of YEP wonders if those controlling New Orleans’ purse strings are open to the changes that the likes of the Casey Foundation recommend: namely, a greater commitment to spending on alternatives to detention and to family services. That would require extra financial support up front, but could ultimately save money.

Any reform in New Orleans’ city or state-run facilities hinges on the ability to retrain front-line staff, Penny says. “Unless there is extensive training and redirection of staff, it may not occur,” he says. “When you come down to dealing with the work force in New Orleans, that effort can suffer greatly if someone in office is not able to encourage through leadership.”