CrimeTracker: Should more juveniles be transferred to adult court?

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - "We are seeing everything as far as violence. We are seeing murders. We are seeing armed robberies. We're seeing shootings," says Leon Cannizzaro.

Juveniles are accused of committing serious crimes, and D.A. Leon Cannizzaro says it's only getting worse.

"Juvenile crime for a felony offense has increased in the city of New Orleans in the past three years," says Cannizzaro.

He points to data from the juvenile court that shows an increase in felony convictions from 195 in 2015 to 323 convictions last year.

"I think in 2018, we will have more arrests and convictions than we did in 2017," says Cannizzaro.

When juveniles commit serious crimes of violence and are sometimes repeat offenders, the D.A.'s office considers whether to transfer those juveniles to the adult court for prosecution.

"I understand when we bring a juvenile up to the adult court, that's a life-changing move for that individual. We appreciate that," says Cannizzaro.

Although criticized in the past for what some called an excessive amount of transfers, Cannizzaro says it's not something he takes lightly.

"We look at the juvenile's background. We look at what he has done in the system in the past, what services have been provided to him. We look at his education. We look at mental health issues," says Cannizzaro.

"The decision to transfer or not is fully in the discretion of the district attorney, and because of it having such an impact on community safety, I do think there needs to be accountability. We need to know why these decisions are being made," says Aaron Clark-Rizzio.

Rizzio is the Executive Director of the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights. It's the public defender's office for the juvenile court. Rizzio believes there are too many young teens being tried as adults.

"What we know is that when you transfer children to the adult court, you don't make our community safer. You actually increase the chances that the person will commit future offenses," says Rizzio.

In 2015, Cannizzaro transferred 18 juveniles to the adult court for prosecution. In 2016, there were 22, and last year, 8 were transferred.

"I think the attorneys came to the table and said we'd be willing to keep these cases in the juvenile court, and we'd be willing to enter a plea of guilty mainly for armed robberies if that individual would be sentenced and held in a juvenile facility until his or her 21st birthday. We agreed with that in many cases," says Cannizzaro.

So far this year, though, the D.A.'s office transferred nine juveniles to the adult court. That's more than all of 2017.

"Again, we have to look at the violent circumstances of that particular case, and we look at the juvenile and we try to come to some resolution that we think is fair and appropriate. It's also important that we take into account the victims in this matter," says Cannizzaro.

Right now, the D.A.'s office is attempting to transfer a 14-year-old accused of stealing cars and committing multiple armed robberies. The teen's alleged victims are left in shock.

"He's still yelling curse words, saying 'You need to move. Do you think I'm playing? You think I won't shoot you?' And that's when he cocked the gun and put it in my face and that's when reality set in," says Madison Shumacher.

"A 14-year-old who is transferred to the adult court can only serve a sentence up to his or her 31st birthday. They do not get the same treatment as a regular adult," says Cannizzaro.

"I think someone that young is going to benefit so much more by being in the juvenile system," says Rizzio.

Rizzio believes the juvenile will be afforded an education and have access to programs that aren't available in the adult prisons. The D.A., though, doesn't make the final decision. Only a juvenile judge can grant the transfer after a hearing takes place and it's proven that the child cannot be rehabilitated.

"The juvenile judge has to make a determination whether or not this individual is sort of one of the worst of the worst," says Cannizzaro.

Cannizzaro says the transfer of 14-year-olds isn't common.

"One juvenile in 10 years has been transferred to the adult court for prosecution as a 14-year-old," says Cannizzaro.

In the past three-and-a-half years, the D.A.'s office transferred 57 15-and 16-year-old juveniles.

"When a child is committing a serious offense, it's clear they're not thinking about the consequence of their actions. We need to look at policies that make our community safer, and what we know is that keeping kids in the juvenile system gives us the best chances for that," says Rizzio.

Cannizzaro says each case is looked at individually, and there's no set number on the amount of transfers that happen each year. He says it's about the crimes these juveniles are committing.

"To people who say these are just wayward children, they are doing a dis-service. These are individuals who are arming themselves and posing a serious threat of danger to this community," says Cannizzaro.

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