Text of DA Cannizzaro’s Juvenile Crime action plan speech
May 16, 2019
For Immediate Release

Contact: Ken Daley, Public Information

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro on Thursday (May 16) expressed condolences for the murder of Mrs. Zelda Townsend last week and proposed an eight-point plan to combat New Orleans’ juvenile crime problem. Here is the complete text of his press conference speech:

I’ve asked you here today because last week’s senseless murder of Zelda Townsend cannot be lost to the passage of time.

That an armed teenager took this woman’s life during a botched auto burglary is inexcusable, and the tragedy must be felt beyond her grieving husband, relatives and friends who will lay her to rest tomorrow. She should be considered family to us all. Because what happened to her could have happened to any one of us this year, in any part of New Orleans. Our juvenile crime problem is that out of control.

The question no longer is whether this city is too hard on juvenile offenders. It is whether juvenile offenders are too hard on this city. Mrs. Townsend’s murder leaves no doubt of the answer.

Mrs. Townsend’s undeserved death must resonate with our city’s political leaders, with our Juvenile and Criminal Court judges, with our crime-weary citizens, and with our frustrated police officers and prosecutors. It should be acknowledged even by the public defense attorneys who represent juvenile offenders.

Real solutions require honesty. We will not get a handle on our juvenile crime problem until we all agree that for many of this city’s habitually delinquent and violent teens, meaningful consequences for persistent and violent criminal conduct not only are appropriate, but are overdue.

For too long there has been political and budgetary pressure placed upon our police department, courts and this prosecutors’ office to downplay the scope of New Orleans’ juvenile crime problem. An impotent pattern of catch-and-release has become the norm, inviting teens to reoffend. We are seeing the folly of that approach, and the increased danger and expense it poses to our community.

When police are dissuaded from being proactive, when they respond late to property crime calls, and when they are banned from pursuing teens seen committing criminal acts, juvenile arrest numbers are suppressed. The true scope of the problem is concealed.

If this office brings solid cases to juvenile court and attains a finding of delinquency, but juvenile judges have been pressured to simply turn teen offenders loose, then occupancy at the Youth Study Center is suppressed. This may please outside donors, but again, the true scope of the problem is concealed.

We cannot continue this charade. The lack of accountability for juvenile offenders has created a situation too dangerous for our citizens to endure. Broken glass from auto burglaries can be found each morning on the streets of every New Orleans neighborhood. This is not considered to be a violent crime. But, as we saw last week, that can change in an instant when teenaged thieves carry guns. Last week, this so-called non-violent crime cost Mrs. Townsend her life.

On Feb. 5, in a speech before the Metropolitan Crime Commission, I singled out violent teen offenders as the biggest crime issue New Orleans faces in 2019. I did so not to stoke fear or open myself to the political attacks that followed, but because this growing threat was apparent to anyone with law enforcement expertise or honest enough to look through an unbiased lens.

Our citizens’ fear is genuine. Their trauma is real. And they find this oppressive sense of victimization exhausting.

Our citizens have endured more auto burglaries in the past six months than our city had in each of the complete years of 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015. That’s roughly when our city’s coddling of juvenile offenders began in earnest.

When I speak on this issue, the usual critics ignore what is happening in our city and claim that the DA just wants to lock up children. What the DA actually wants is an appropriate concern and response to what children in our city are doing with guns.

Jail is but one outcome. I personally review dozens of juvenile cases each week to route some teens into our Diversion program. I believe the city should restore funding for electronic ankle monitoring to the juvenile court as a deterring alternative to detention. And I am open to seeing whether city proposals such as the evening reporting center can demonstrate that it has the programming and capacity to reduce the juvenile offender population.

But meaningful consequences, including incarceration for those who deserve it, must be a supported element of what city leaders call their “holistic” approach.

We all want to see fewer teens incarcerated. But we must arrive there because fewer teens are committing crimes, not just because they are being caught and released at the expense of public safety. More social services, trauma awareness and better educational opportunities are needed to steer wayward children from anti-social behavior. But those solutions require greater measures of time and money than we presently can provide. Our citizens need relief from this crisis now.

Given the urgency of the situation, particularly with schools letting out for the summer, I am proposing an eight-point plan to combat juvenile crime:

  1. Authorize and encourage NOPD officers to enforce the truancy and curfew ordinances already on the books. As recently as 2011, the NOPD made 4,073 of these “status offense arrests.” These are valuable early interventions that can place a wayward child and their parent or guardian before a juvenile judge for redirection. But in the wake of political pressure, the NOPD made only 287 status offense arrests last year, down 93 percent.
  1. Authorize and encourage juvenile court judges to get tougher on repeat offenders. The city should immediately restore funding to Juvenile Court for a law enforcement-managed electronic monitoring program as an alternative to incarceration. But city leaders also must get realistic and support detention of violent and repeat juvenile offenders who show no interest in rehabilitation. Our juvenile judges have an obligation to this community to stop the unrestricted release of dangerous individuals, regardless of whether they are under 18 when they point guns at people.
  1. Demand more engagement and supervision from parents. Juvenile Court judges are empowered to place conditions of release upon both the juvenile offender and their parent or guardian. Unskilled parents should be directed to social services for family skills education. Uninvolved parents, on the other hand, can be subjected to fines and penalties as provided in Revised Statute 14:92.2, the state law against Improper Supervision of a Minor by a parent or legal custodian. In cases where appropriate, authorities should book neglectful guardians with this charge and judges should be willing to penalize parents and custodians whose neglectful conduct imperils public safety.
  1. Push for a conclusion to the NOPD’s federal consent decree. This vestige of a campaign promise from a previous administration, at this point, is doing us more harm than good. I encourage the mayor to implore the federal judge, monitors and the Justice Department to certify the NOPD’s compliance as a constitutional police force. We can make the undermanned NOPD much more effective and efficient by restoring proactive neighborhood patrols, creating a juvenile crime task force, returning pursuit discretion to experienced officers, and streamlining the onerous paperwork demands that are burdening and slowing our officers. Dissolving the consent decree after seven costly years also would free up about $11 million per year that could be re-invested into juvenile crime solutions and programs.
  1. Prioritize the much-needed expansion of the Youth Study Center. Already this spring, city officials have gone to court asking judges to order some teens transferred to the adult jail to relieve overcrowding at the Youth Study Center. Because so many violent teens are running rampant across our city, the 40-bed detention capacity of the Youth Study Center is proving inadequate to ensure public safety. An immediate push should be made to expand the number of beds, counselors and security staff to sufficient numbers.
  1. Place the needs of citizens, visitors and public safety ahead of outside donors. We all would like to see more private donations funding criminal justice efforts in New Orleans. But we should not be held hostage trying to reach arbitrary detention quotas in juvenile or adult centers when public safety is being compromised. We have to start placing the city’s security and safety needs above the quotas required by outside reform groups.
  1. Invest in the expansion of the District Attorney’s juvenile staff. The city this year already sent $300,000 to the juvenile public defenders and committed another $300,000 to operate the experimental Evening Reporting Center. For a truly holistic approach, the city should provide an equal allowance to this office for the hiring and retention of two additional prosecutors and a case screener for Juvenile Court to help us cope with the spiraling juvenile felony caseload. 
  1. Request emergency help from the state. Just recently, our mayor successfully shamed state government and tourism leaders into providing a much-needed cash infusion to fund repairs to our city’s aging infrastructure. But stemming juvenile crime is just as critical to New Orleans’ ability to survive and thrive. Until the NOPD has restored its ranks, we should request as many state police troopers or federal task force agents as we can get. We also should request more Department of Probation and Parole agents be tasked to our Juvenile Court to follow up on released juvenile offenders and their families to reduce recidivism. Simply releasing teen offenders without rehabilitation programs or meaningful supervision is selling both these teens and our city short.

Moving swiftly on these recommendations, I believe, would provide our crime-weary citizens with some immediate relief from this plague of dangerous juvenile crime. The Mayor and City Council still would have much hard work ahead addressing deeper systemic issues that fuel criminal activity in New Orleans – education, poverty, income inequality, substance abuse, mental health treatment and more. But engaging this eight-point plan without delay would provide the juvenile crime relief our citizens so desperately want and so badly deserve.