Hurricane Katrina may have been the best thing that ever happened to juvenile justice in Louisiana, says Youth Today. Before the storm, Simon Gonsoulin, director of the state Office of Youth Development, believed the state was moving toward its goal of reinventing its juvenile justice system – albeit slowly. The number of youth in the state's three secure facilities was declining. In pre-Katrina New Orleans, Juvenile Court Judge David Bell saw a worsening picture. In just eight months before the storm, 5,000 juveniles were arrested. Of those who appeared before the city's six juvenile judges, 25 were later murdered. “It was a blessing to the court and to the system,” Bell says of Katrina. With the flow of youth into the system reduced to a trickle, the judges had time to reduce the backlog of cases by a staggering 94 percent.
“They have a very unique opportunity, like no other place I've seen,” says Bart Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. State and city leaders were “dealing with a system that even they were highly critical of. The challenge is always that you have the old system to run while you develop the new one. But they can basically build from scratch.” Not all stakeholders are convinced. “It's not happening yet,” says Melissa Sawyer of the Youth Empowerment Project, a nonprofit that helps youths re-enter the community after serving time in detention. “People here are really averse to change, and what people tell you here is not always true.” Youth Today describes other changes in the juvenile justice system since Katrina struck.