New Orleans, posited our supervising attorney, creates reasons to celebrate. When you are facing the highest incarceration rates per capita in the country, the highest murder rate in the country, and one of the most corrupt law enforcement agencies, it becomes necessary to celebrate every victory and achievement whether that is the passage of winter to spring, or a court injunction granting you the right to inspect juvenile detention centers.

That introduction – to both New Orleans and the work of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) – stuck with myself, Erica Mason, and Martha Koutsogiannopoulos as we delved into our assignments.

JJPL is located on the border between the neighborhoods of the Garden District and Center City. If you walk one way you pass one of the city’s two public shelters, an overpass that used to be a refuge for the hundreds of homeless people until they were overly ticketed and forced to move, and what remains of public housing in New Orleans. In the other direction lie the remnants of a slavery economy – plantation-style houses dotting a street covered in palm trees and wide green spaces. The neighborhood is as night and day as the JJPL offices.

Despite handling some of the most heartbreaking legal concerns, JJPL is filled with joy. Young people, their families, community organizers, and ridiculous amounts of King Cake filled the office spaces over this January. Like the opening words of our supervising attorney, the atmosphere was necessary in order to counter the difficulty of the work. On our first day the three of us from CUNY were handed memos asking us to assist JJPL in framing their policy work and legal strategies for supporting youth in the Orleans School Systems and the Juvenile and Adult incarceration sites.

I was able to complete two memos and attend three of the BreakOUT! youth groups while interning. However all of us were taken on a tour of the levees by a JJPL organizer and attended a mini-inspection of the Youth Study Center, a euphemistic title for the Juvenile Detention Center of Orleans Parish.

Our legal work focused on creating a strategy for addressing the educational abuses students daily  face through harsh suspension and expulsion policies. Mine specifically addressed what specific due process rights students are due at different time intervals of suspensions. According to the regulations governing the Orleans Parish Schools young people must have an expulsion hearing within ten days, yet they regularly go longer than ten days without a hearing. I was able to read memos from former Louisiana State Attorney Generals, local and federal cases, and policy memorandum in order to address these due process concerns.

In my second week I met with another JJPL attorney who has, since July, been attempting to get co-representation for a young man’s claims of negligence against a Louisiana juvenile detention facility. The young man was severely beaten in July and the statute of limitations on his claim have almost run out. The JJPL attorney I met with wanted me to draft a brief outlying all of his claims. With this, he thought, an outside attorney might be more easily persuaded to represent the youth. This was an overwhelming task and required me to research both local and federal laws governing such claims as well as researching the Louisiana torts laws. The lack of available claims for this young man, for whom a severe beating was not part of the punishment assigned at his trial, was appalling and revealed the ways in which the rights of inmates have been reduced sharply despite the widespread knowledge of sexual assault, rape, and assault that occur within detention centers.

Yet the staff of JJPL encounter these conditions and impediments on a daily basis. Like the city itself, the JJPL offices are filled with joy in order to counter the devastation of this work. JJPL also focuses on incorporating the voices of the youth they serve into their strategic planning in order to address not just the diminishing legal options available but to also empower and inform the people affected by these policies. While at JJPL Martha, Erica, and I were able to hear a meeting of Young Adults Striving for Success (YASS) where they planned a prom for all the youth currently suspended or expelled. Intense planning went into the colors, the location, and the advertising in order to ensure that all youth from all over New Orleans could attend.

To research concerns of due process, negligence complaints against juvenile detention centers and to correspond with adults serving time since they were juveniles requires this kind of dedication to survival and joy. While all of the work at JJPL was extraordinary the voices and work of the youth continuously uplifted and inspired us. Our work improved because of them, and we all hope that our work, in some way, can positively affect their lives.

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