Young Guns: Son of a Saint work to keep young offenders on the right track

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The young men of the Son of a Saint foundation often get lessons in life. Their lives have taken twists and turns some couldn't imagine, but they've found each other through this mentoring program.

"Ya know, a lot of these boys go through trauma, and there needs to be a lot of love and understanding and compassion for them. For us, we focus on preventative measures. The boys start at 10," says Sonny Lee.

Son of a Saint founder and director Lee says young black men in New Orleans are the most vulnerable. Lee got his own reminder of that when he says teens stole the foundation's Ford F-150 from behind their office building.

"It was about 4 o'clock and I noticed that it was gone. My assistant had actually gone to deliver some paperwork and get some checks signed. When he came back, I'm not sure if he locked the door or not, but it was stolen," says Lee.

The truck has Son of a Saint logos on it and a license plate that said, MENTORS. Within 24 hours, Lee says people began spotting the stolen truck around the city.

"My whole concern also was for the boys that had stolen the vehicle, and we know they were boys because people spotted black males in the truck probably around 17 or 18 years old," says Lee.

Eventually the truck was found abandoned in a St. Claude/Desire neighborhood.

"The back window was shattered. They had a rock through it. They cut up the seats. They were obviously doing some drugs in there and had banged up the side of the car," says Lee.

There were no signs of the suspects.

"For me, I understand hurt people, hurt people. I can only assume that these boys had some trauma in their lives just from what we do with Son of a Saint," says Lee.

The sheer number of juvenile arrests each year for crimes like theft, aggravated battery, and even armed robbery are sobering. FOX 8 reviewed and analyzed six years of preliminary data on NOPD arrests, showing ages, and genders of arrestees.

From 2011 through last year, police made 15,548  juvenile arrests.

"The typical juvenile offender is the person who is being a little mischievous, perhaps juveniles committing mischievous offenses, not necessarily always violent crimes, but participating in crimes of opportunity," says NOPD Chief Michael Harrison.

Chief Harrison says the typical juvenile offender is arrested for pulling on car door handles and burglarizing vehicles.

"We believes that those who are participating in a very brazen offense, like armed robbery, gun violence and shootings, we believe that is very adult behavior and that takes a very adult mindset because you know what's going to happen to those who shoot," says Harrison.

More juveniles are arrested every year for battery than any other violent crime.

Last year, police made 132 battery and assault arrests of juveniles between the ages of 8 and 13. The number of arrests involving juveniles between 14 and 16 years old dramatically increased to 360 arrests.

"Batteries and assaults are usually arguments that they have with one another or kids from opposing schools or different neighborhoods. They don't have good conflict skills, so that's how they solve their conflicts," says Harrison.

Chief Harrison agrees that if a juvenile offender is not caught or rehabilitated in some way, he or she will likely offend again. The next time, it may be a more serious offense.

"They get emboldened, and then they become brazen and graduate to things like robbery," says Harrison.

People who live in the Garden District were shocked earlier this year, when a pair of 12 year olds would be involved in such activities," says Rob Smith.

Of the 4,897 robbery arrests across New Orleans in the past 6 years, 14 percent of them were juvenile offenders. Last year, 68 robbery arrests involved juveniles between the ages of 8 and 13 years old and 92 juveniles between 14 and 16 years old.

Gun violence can lead to more than just armed robbery. Police are sometimes investigating murders and shootings that involve children as young as 14 years old.

"They go on social media and certainly they post pictures of themselves with firearms, making threats to people over social media, and in-person, and then we see the actual shootings," says Harrison.

From 2011 till 2013, police made 20 murder arrests of juveniles between the ages of 14 and 16 years old. In the past three years, four juvenile murder arrests were made in the same age group.

Of the 50 boys involved in the Son of a Saint foundation, none of them have been arrested since entering the program. It's something Sonny Lee takes great pride in.

"These are boys who have lost their fathers. Some of them to natural death, some to incarceration and a lot of them to violence," he said.

Lee says each member is supported in every possible way, so they don't fall back into the system.

"Ya know, it costs over $400 a day for a young man in juvenile prison. Those resources could go to organizations like ours. For me, it's hard to understand why more isn't done," says Lee.

He says besides more programs, more people should volunteer their time to help these juveniles make better choices in the future.

"I mean we really are doing the government's work, to be honest with you. Our truck being stolen just shows me how much more we need programs like a Son of a Saint to help more boys," says Lee.

He believes the solution is pretty simple, help the younger generation to become better people.

"You obviously have young people who have had trauma. We know that hurts people. There's mental health disorders. It's simple to me. The way to support that is by preventative measures so that people who have experienced that don't experience it in the future. That's how you cut the cycle of this crime," says Lee.

Copyright 2017 WVUE. All rights reserved.