Commentary

Charging children as adults shifts blame away from adults’ failures | Gina Womack

New Orleans DA Jason Williams reneged on a major campaign promise

June 24, 2021 7:00 am
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“For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become.”–James Baldwin.

We at Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children are saddened by the death of Anita Irvin-LeViege who was murdered during an attempted carjacking in New Orleans in January. We mourn her death and all lives lost to violence.

At the same time, we are riled at New Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams who broke his campaign promise when he decided to try as adults the two teenagers implicated in Ms. LeViege’s murder. We know the youth justice system as a whole fails to offer equitable, holistic support to young people from early childhood, which can prevent such tragedies from happening. 

When that same system then moves to punish children as adults, it’s inflicting more trauma and shifting blame away from its own epic failures onto the youth most in need of help. Last week, Williams supported the parole petition of a 54-year old man who committed murder at age 15. Though I support this decision, the inconsistency shows how the broken system perpetuates itself.  Rather than address problems at the front-end, we’re forced to look for back-end solutions that don’t work.

Our anger and disappointment isn’t just with Williams. He’s just an example of the backwards approach of a system that continues to target Black and brown youth. 

Even so, I want my vote back from him and from every policymaker I helped elect who has not done the right thing for our children.

Legislative accountability structures exist to support reforms, but those efforts are fragmented and uncoordinated. The Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission (JJRAIC) failed to implement the reforms of Act 1225, which was passed in 2003 to transform Louisiana’s system into a model of holistic support for children and move away from its ineffective punitive approach. Children Youth and Planning Boards, which are supposed to coordinate services for our most vulnerable youth, are only functional in about five jurisdictions. Before my organization recently got the Louisiana Legislature involved, the JJRAIC hadn’t met in years, but we are now working to align and coordinate these bodies and create public accountability.

The failure of policymakers to implement reform measures from 18 years ago continues to perpetuate a vicious cycle of intergenerational harm, trauma and violence. Louisiana ranks 50th in economic well-being of its children and 49th in education. Prison is the wrong place to meet mental health needs, but 73% of Louisiana’s incarcerated children have mental health challenges.

Our criminal legal system is also rooted in a history of violence against Black people. Even now, Black youth remain five times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. At the same time, we know that young people of all backgrounds and races engage in risky behavior at the same rate. 

But while some children’s mistakes and behavioral infractions are handled by parents, teachers, and trusted adults with a loving and compassionate approach, Black and brown children, especially those in poorer neighborhoods, are targeted by the criminal legal system. I once served on the board of a predominantly white private school where I witnessed first hand the difference between supporting children and punishing children; it was infuriating to know that what I fight for every day for our Black children is offered so effortlessly in predominantly white and affluent communities.

After our children are pushed out of schools and targeted by the criminal legal system, they are then subjected to additional violence. A 2018 legislative audit showed the state was out of compliance with federal laws intended to protect incarcerated youth.  There are recent reports of riots, escapes, pepper spray, and even two suicides at one youth facility. Even more recent reports include the inadequacy of care during the pandemic, including isolation, solitary confinement, lack of access to education and services and the inability to connect with family.

There is no way to defend a racist and abusive system that doesn’t  even rehabilitate youth or make the community safer. Studies clearly demonstrate that contact with the justice system– instead of counseling and community supervision programs—increases the likelihood of criminal involvement. So it’s beyond frustrating that policymakers continue to harm Black and brown youth under the guise of “protecting the community.” 

Our government has failed to make a true effort to change this racist system of violence and abuse. Many policymakers do exactly what DA Williams has done — pledge to reject the status quo and then do the opposite. Meanwhile our youth of color are growing up in a society where institutional, structural, and interpersonal violence against them is normalized and accepted, and they internalize the message that they are disposable.

I am appalled by the way children, especially children of color, are treated in Louisiana. I am fed up with those who continue to sustain this racist and oppressive system and with the cycle of violence and harm done to our youth. If the youth incarceration system continues to revive the myth of superpredator adolescents of color, while failing to meet children’s basic needs, we will never end this cycle. And we certainly won’t end it if candidates promising to treat children as children get in office and do the opposite.

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Gina Womack
Gina Womack

Gina Womack, a mother of 3 adult children, was born and raised in Louisiana and is the director and co-founder of Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, a statewide membership-based organization dedicated to creating a better life for all of Louisiana's youth, especially those who are involved, or at risk of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system.

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