By Matt Sledge | | November 20, 2020

Since a troubled electronic ankle bracelet program ended two years ago, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court judges have lacked options for keeping watch on young people ahead of trial.

Last month, however, the city launched a new program it hopes will keep more kids out of the short-staffed juvenile jail by having city employees check up on them in their homes.

So far, the in-home supervision program has eight out of a maximum 15 youths enrolled. Jail Director Kyshun Webster hopes the program, one of a series of initiatives under Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration, will curb youth recidivism.

“This administration believes that we can’t arrest our way out of this, so having more alternatives to detention is really important,” Webster said in a recent interview.

Only young people locked up at the jail are eligible for the 90-day program. The jail can refer alleged offenders to judges for inclusion in the program, or judges can place kids in it on their own. The program isn’t open to youths after their case is decided.

Those accused of violent crimes are not eligible for the program, according to the city. Behavior inside the juvenile jail is also a determining factor.

The cornerstone of the program are the “juvenile re-entry” specialists who pay house calls on the kids three times a week. They will act something like probation officers, checking to make sure that youths are attending school, including virtual school, and participating in a mandatory after-school program like sports, a church activity or work.

The re-entry specialists will make monthly reports back to the judges, who can decide whether to allow youths to continue participating.

Webster said the specialists will also interact with parents in an effort to help them “regain control” of home situations. “Oftentimes, these kids who are in these facilities have issues that are deeply seated in families, so our intervention program is not just to touch the life of the kids,” he said.

Stakeholders in the juvenile justice world are watching the program as it develops. Probation and electronic monitoring programs have often faced criticism for being too invasive — or jail by another name.

Cantrell has also faced criticism for her self-described “tough love” approach to juvenile justice, including a curfew. She’s said she’s trying to bring order to the jail, which was roiled by violent incidents in years past, and introduce alternatives like in-home supervision and an evening reporting center.

The city says the latest program is tailored to reduce the jail population because it is only available to kids who are already behind bars.

Ernest Johnson, director of the youth mentoring program Ubuntu Village, said that in recent years the city has spent millions on a new wing of the youth jail. He still believes the bulk of the government’s spending should be directed elsewhere.

“I don’t think we’re investing enough in other areas that are root causes to some of these systemic problems,” Johnson said.

The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which represents kids accused of crimes in New Orleans, declined to comment on the program while it’s in its early stages.

Previously, youths awaiting trial were eligible for an electronic monitoring program.

But that program was phased out in 2018 after years of problems, including a 2014 incident where two teens with ankle bracelets were accused of killing a pizza delivery man. One pleaded guilty and the other was acquitted at trial.

The city’s inspector general blasted the program for lax supervision. Cost issues also helped doom the program, and they’ve stymied efforts to revive it, according to Webster. The city says is still looking at how to fund a new version of electronic monitoring.

That’s been a top priority for some criminal justice watchdogs. The Metropolitan Crime Commission called on the city to revive the program, pointing to the massive spike in auto burglaries — many committed by kids — before the coronavirus pandemic. The group’s president said the lack of ankle monitoring in the new program was a serious shortcoming.

“A probation officer going into the home a couple times a week, doesn’t in my opinion adequately serve as an incentive for the offender not to go back out after the probation officer leaves,” he said. “We’re being penny wise and pound foolish.”

Meanwhile, city officials say they’ve also launched another program for kids in juvenile court.

Adding to a summer internship program launched in 2019, the city has started a year-round internship program that places kids with local businesses.

Lauren Lewis, the owner of the New Orleans East beauty salon Studio 4212, has already welcomed three youths into her business. She says she helps train them to style hair on manikins and they watch on as she tends to customers.

“I absolutely love it,” she said. “I’ve never been in the criminal justice system, but I also know everybody deserves a second chance. Just because they’ve done something one time doesn’t mean they’ll do it again.”

The city has enrolled 100 youths in its summer internship program and another 50 in the year-round program, according to Emily Wolff, director of the city’s Office of Youth and Families. Youths are paid $10 an hour through outside grants.