Spotlight Exclusives

Institutional Failures Damaging At Risk Youth in Greater New Orleans, By James Bernazzani, President, Youth Rescue Initiative

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As citizens of the United States, we take pride in the principles of our founders. Though our country۪s history is challenged by social, economic, and racial tensions, we take comfort that from such turmoil we progress towards fulfilling the ideals and vision of those who initially sought to create a country of acceptance and equality. Unfortunately, reality does not always mirror intention. Though institutions may be founded on ideal principles, they are ultimately human creations and, at times, imperfect and flawed. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

A sad reality is that often our youth are those most damaged by these institutional failures.        

Without the proper foundation, some juveniles of Greater New Orleans are condemned to wander through life ill-equipped with the social and technical skills necessary to function in a productive community. Conflict resolution and skill sets for career paths are seldom developed, making it increasingly difficult to find suitable jobs. Ultimately, the choice between legitimate employment and criminal involvement is made for them, as lawful opportunity closes its doors.

There is a definitive correlation between age and violence in underprivileged youth; the level and lethality of violence increases dramatically as youth age. As law enforcement attempts to target youth who engage in criminal activity, it becomes apparent that this approach is challenged in New Orleans, where there are too many at-risk youth engaging in the same criminal behavior, overwhelming the legal system. Thus, as one criminal is arrested and subsequently prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated, another disenfranchised youth steps forward to engage in the same sort of criminal activity. 

One of the weaknesses in the juvenile justice system is the limited support for youth being reintegrated into society. They are not given adequate resources or services to aid in their readjustment, and often they are returning to the communities that encouraged and enabled the criminal activity in the first place. It should come as no surprise that the recidivism rate is extremely high for criminal youth.

Since New Orleans has a high crime rate, it is particularly important to address the roots of criminal youth activity. History shows that arresting criminals does not permanently eliminate crime nor does it address the underlying causes of the criminal activity. This approach is ultimately a temporary response, removing criminals from the street without addressing the precursors or triggers of crime. Therefore, it is imperative that efforts be made to help the at-risk youth before the criminal activity begins.

Greater New Orleans was violent before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and continues to display violent tendencies usually associated with the illegal drug trade and/or conflict resolution. Select failures in local social institutions have led, over a generation, to a segment of the community that lacks the social and technical skills to succeed.

The diagram below illustrates the problem facing the community of New Orleans. The triangle represents the universe of disenfranchised citizens who lack the social and technical skills to function. The vector on the left represents ascending age and the vector on the right represents the increased level of violent activity. In essence, as these lost youth of the community age, the level and lethality of violence increases.

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The shaded apex of the triangle represents the law enforcement tactical solution, i.e., arrest, prosecution, conviction, and incarceration.  The problem with this approach in the New Orleans area is that when the local authorities make an arrest and take one of these violent offenders off of the street, there are a number of unskilled residents who are willing to fill the void.

The reality facing New Orleans is that New Orleans citizens cannot arrest themselves out of this situation.

The base of the triangle represents the strategic approach that needs to be enhanced to address the lack of social and technical skills at a young age. This strategic approach is primarily non-law enforcement. The stakeholders are, but not limited to, politicians, education, recreation, clergy, parole, business, media, and truancy.

The Youth Rescue Initiative targets those individuals who find themselves at the base of this triangle by providing structure and discipline and therefore  opportunity during the child۪s age of innocence. If successful, as these children age and have the requisite social and technical skills to function in the community, opportunities will present themselves that should preclude most from entering into a violent lifestyle as they grow older.

As a former law enforcement officer, I۪ve come to believe that New Orleans needs a comprehensive endeavor designed to assist at-risk youth to overcome challenges and achieve success. For instance, Youth Rescue Initiative sees its mission as creating structured opportunities for positive growth in an effort to build character and discipline among today۪s disenfranchised youth, thus improving the quality of life for all citizens of Greater New Orleans.

The Youth Rescue Initiative focuses on partnering with area universities, elementary and middle schools, and pre-existing programs and organizations that have demonstrated success. We need more initiatives that reintroduce hope and empower the youth of Greater New Orleans. Ultimately, it is imperative that children be hopeful regarding their futures, believing that their future holds many possibilities and that their personal goals are attainable

James Bernazzani is president of the Youth Rescue Initiative.

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