What Does 'Adult' Mean In The Eyes Of The Law? In La., Many People Are Working To Change It - 11

May 25, 2016

At all levels of government right now, laws about juveniles are rapidly changing. However, some states, including Louisiana, continue to prosecute and sentence juveniles for sentences of life without parole.

Last fall, the U.S .Supreme Court ruled, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, that sentences of life without parole should be rare for juveniles. Henry Montgomery was 17 years old when he shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy. He was given a sentence of life without parole, and has been serving at Angola ever since.

It’s been 50 years. Based on research showing that the human brain isn’t fully developed at the teenage stage – specifically, regarding judgment and impulse control – the Supreme Court, in this case and similar cases, decided that people convicted as juveniles should have a meaningful chance at release.

Louisiana is one of just nine states that regards 17-year-olds as adults when it comes to the criminal justice system. Which is why I was on a school bus, windows down, packed with students who were heading to the state Capitol to rally in support of Louisiana Senate Bill 324, the bill to Raise the Age for when a person is considered an adult in the eyes of the criminal justice system.

Currently that age is 17, but Dauté Martin, who is 16, hopes to change that. Dauté calls herself “a political brainiac.”

“When there’s so much at stake, that’s what makes me excited,” says Dauté. “This is my passion. I plan on running for president. 2046.”

Dauté first learned about what it’s like for juveniles in the adult criminal justice system when her brother landed there for a week a few years ago. He was riding in a stolen car he didn’t know was stolen. But it was in her civics class this year where Dauté read how juveniles in adult prisons receive little to no education, are more likely to be sexually assaulted, and have a higher rate of recidivism.

“I was like: what in the world? No, this is not okay,” she recalls. “It blew my mind. I call this my political mode. I got, like, serious. Me, I’m very goofy. I love to play. It was like serious. In the room, you could hear a pin drop. That’s how the passion was.”

Senate Bill 324 -- the bill Dauté traveled to Baton Rogue to rally for -- is pretty clear cut. If it passes, young people arrested at age 17 will no longer be treated as adults. Instead, they’ll go through juvenile court. But the law will still allow juveniles who commit serious crimes to be transferred to the adult system, just as it does now.

So there is the law, and there is the interpretation of the law. District attorneys across Louisiana use this exception to widely varying degrees.

Which brings us to what’s happening in the New Orleans City Council.

Students at the rally at the Capitol on Youth Justice Day.
Credit Sarah Hunt / Louisiana Center for Children's Rights

“You know this council wants all juveniles out of OPP,” states City Council President Jason Williams at a budget hearing last November. “You know that is just our policy across the board?” Williams asks Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.

Williams wants Cannizzaro to stop transferring juveniles to the adult criminal justice system, which often means they’ll be held in the city’s jail, most commonly called Orleans Parish Prison, or OPP.

“We think that is the most humane, evolved, righteous thing we can do in terms of children,” states Williams.

“I hear you,” answered Cannizzaro. “I understand.”

DA Cannizzaro transfers many 15 and 16 year olds to adult court, especially for armed robbery, where he transfers nearly 90 percent of young defendants – a rate some say is one of the highest rates in the nation. The city council believes – like the Supreme Court does -- that those transfers should be rare. 

“So do we have your commitment that we won’t see any other transfers of juveniles for burglaries?” asks Williams.

“Look,” responds Cannizzaro. “I hate to make commitments like that. I can’t do that. I just -- I can’t do that, because then I’m not being true to my oath.”

Council President Williams repeatedly asks the DA to commit to specific situations in which he would keep juveniles in the juvenile justice system. Each time, DA Cannizzaro refuses to commit.

“Sometimes it gets a little bit more businesslike,” answers Cannizzro. “It gets a little bit more serious in the adult court than it does in the juvenile system, and I’m not trying to be disparaging to anyone—“

“It gets a lot more adult-like in that jail too,” interjects Williams. “That’s the problem.”

“What the studies show is that with regard to juveniles,” says Councilmember Susan Guidry, who heads the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, “is that they fare much better in terms of rehabilitation, in terms of recidivism, when they are kept in the juvenile system staffed with people trained to deal with juveniles.”

But according to DA Cannizzaro, the law is the law. “I’d be remiss if I have what I consider to be a prosecutable case and simply said I’m not going to prosecute it because I just -- I don’t agree with the law,” says Cannizzaro. “That’s really not my call. And if it is the law, I think I have a responsibility to prosecute it, if the facts support that.”

So in order to change what happens to juveniles in the criminal justice system across Louisiana, you have to change the law.

The first time Dauté went to Baton Rogue to rally in support of including 17-year-old offenders in the juvenile justice system, she had a letter prepared.

“Hi I’m Dauté Martin, I am 10th grade at Cohen College Prep,” reads Dauté. “I am 10th grade vice president. Students today are leaders of tomorrow.  Children at OPP are not being educated…”

But that day, Dauté never got to meet with any legislators. A month later, Dauté went back to the Capitol with two other students to speak to the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

“This time it was more like: I know I’m going in,” recalls Dauté. “I knew I had some serious business to get done. So I was like: You got to do it.”

She was a little nervous, waiting out in the hallway, because this, after all, is where laws are made. Then they went into the Committee room.

“It was like a long table going around the room,” recalls Dauté. “And each senator sat in a specific place behind their name, and then in the back they had all the chairs and all the people. And then the table where you spoke at was like in front of the first row. I sat in the second row, in the third seat. We were pretty close. So they had maybe five people that spoke before us. One was a DA person, and the DA, he was like straight up: ‘nah, this not working, this ain’t gonna happen,’ and we were all like: there’s one disagreement. And we went right after them.”

One of the other students spoke first, about his 17-year-old friend, who Dauté also knows. Dauté says after their friend went to the adult jail, he lost his pride.

“He wasn’t the same after he had been to jail,” says Dauté.

“Then I went!” to speak, she remembers. “I was always raised that eye contact was important. So I was trying to read the notes off my phone cause I had written out what I wanted to say, ‘cause I knew I wouldn’t remember everything. So I was reading and then I look up. Read a little bit and get it in my mind, and then look up. And I was talking about my brother and his experience and I told them how he received zero educational hours. He missed a whole week of school. You know, imagine missing a whole week of school. That’s a lot.”

And then something happened that took Dauté’s breath away.

“So after we went the DA went back.”

Dauté was talking about Pete Adams, the lobbyist for the District Attorneys Association.

“He went back up there, and all of a sudden was like: ‘I withdraw my opposition,’” remembers Dauté. “Oh my goodness! I didn’t understand the powerfulness of it ‘til after we left. After that, it was like, ‘stamp!’ It’s passed.”

The bill passed the senate committee. And since then, it’s also passed the full senate. Now it’s making its way through the House. If it passes there, Governor Edwards says he will sign the bill – something he’s made clear he will enthusiastically do. Dauté goes online every week or so to check on the bill’s progress. It’s a long process, but she is thrilled to have been a part of it. She plans to put it on her résumé.

“If I can change one mind just by today, one mind, imagine what we could do in a few days of talking to more people who disagree. Imagine that.

“I aspire to be a politician because I one, want to help people on a larger scale. You can, of course, you can go out and feed the homeless or something, but passing a good law changes the system.”

Unprisoned: Stories From The System is produced by Eve Abrams and brought to you by New Orleans Public Radio and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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