New Orleans considers juvenile diversion centers as an alternative to jail

 

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By Kevin Litten, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

kevin_litten@nola.com

The Times-Picayune

 

The New Orleans City Council had a lengthy discussion with juvenile court officials Wednesday (Nov. 14) about opening at least one diversion center as an alternative to the city’s primary detention facility for youth offenders.

City Council members and court officials disagreed on what such a center would be called but were united in its purpose. Chief Juvenile Court Judge Candice Bates-Anderson continuously referred to the facility as a “evening reporting center.” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said that sounded like a “work-release program” and suggested another name, the “building excellence center.”

Both sides agreed on what the center should be: an alternative to the Youth Study Center, the city’s lockup facility, where police could take juveniles engaged in risky but not outright criminal behavior.

The “evening” portion of the name Bates-Anderson used refers to the center being open from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Moreno said she hoped the such centers could offer “extensive intervention services” and help kids with “extra needs” such as tutoring, recreation and social services.

“I’ve heard the stories from NOPD officers where they’ll tell me they have some kids running around, trying to break into cars. They’ll pick them up and bring them into one of the district offices, and they’ll usually let them go because they don’t want them going through the system,” Moreno said. “But some of them do go through the system … and unfortunately they do end up at the Youth Study Center and once they end up there, unfortunately they come out worse than when they first entered.”

Bates-Anderson said diversion centers have been tried before in New Orleans, but they faded away once their funding was cut. She envisions the centers as a place where other children in the community could go for homework help or recreation.

Proposed staffing for the diversion centers would include one employee per five children and a coordinator for the entire program. There would also be counselors who could move among facilities, and Tulane University students would provide coordinated homework assistance under a contract for tutoring services. There would also likely be a need for security staff, who could double as a driver to get children from school and to home.

The cost for each center is estimated at about $110,000, without transportation costs included because previously the program was provided with a free van from the city.

Such a facility is not part of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s proposed budget, but her spokeswoman, LaTonya Norton, said the program has been discussed in the mayor’s office and funding is still being worked out. The council and the mayor have until Dec. 1, the deadline for approving next year’s budget, to find the money for the new program. Norton said the mayor plans to take money from an a program that monitors offenders electronically to pay for a youth diversion center.