By Danae Columbus, opinion columnist
Something is terribly wrong with Tyrese Harris, and it’s probably our fault. With a dozen arrests and 30 charges by age 18, Harris became a hardened criminal destined for acts of violence followed by long-term incarceration. He easily could have serious mental health issues.
When a perpetrator poses for an arrest mugshot, one can usually see emotion, embarrassment or occasionally a sense of humanity. Not Harris. He simply stared straight ahead at the camera with a blank look in his eyes as if he didn’t give a damn.
Harris was arrested after he carjacked and injured realtor Kelleye Rhein while she pumped gas at Costco on Feb. 1. Then he was tagged with a previous attempted carjacking in the Central Business District, and sources say the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office holds several warrants that are ready to be served.
He is also accused the tragic shooting death of 12-year-old Derrick Cash on Jan. 3. It is one thing when a child is shot in crossfire between rival gang members. But to shoot a child in the head at close range speaks of a very dark place where too many unstable teenagers dwell.
Did Harris have to turn out this way? In Harris’ case he was surrounded by several people who truly cared about him. His mother reached out to her minister. In turn, the minister contacted Mayor LaToya Cantrell, a trained social worker. She met with the young man twice and offered solutions for a better future. All three must be applauded for their efforts. Unfortunately, it was too late to save the teen.
“New Orleans absolutely failed Tyrese Harris,” said Orleans Parish Chief Juvenile Court Judge Ranord Darensburg. “Most youths who enter New Orleans juvenile detention system have already suffered five traumas.”
Although there is no one path to juvenile criminality, a number of risk factors increase a youth’s chances of becoming an offender. They include such family characteristics as poor parenting or a lack of parental supervision, family size, home discord, child maltreatment as well as poverty and growing up in a neighborhood where drugs, guns and crime are an accepted part of everyday life. If a young person’s only role models are individuals engaged in violent crimes, it’s easy for him or her to follow that same path.
“We have to intervene with these young people early. Once involved in criminal activities, the opportunity to change their lives diminishes drastically,” said Darensburg, who is also a licensed social worker and had worked in the juvenile court system for more than a decade before being elected to the bench in 2020. Darensburg said he believes that almost 68% of the youth who enter the system suffer from a diagnosable mental health illness.
Juvenile Court officials’ Jan. 24 presentation to the City Council showed that the majority of New Orleans youth facing incarceration were detained during the hours of 3 to 11 p.m. “Many of these children’s parent or parents have no choice: They work in the evenings and can’t be home,” Darensburg said. “Without being supervised, the youth succumb to the lure of the streets. For these kids, there’s nothing but trouble out there. Their siblings might also be in trouble or even killed. In this situation, we’re going to lose very time.”
Darensburg said he’s also disappointed that youth programs, such as Son of a Saint and the Silverback Society, do not accept young people with a history of juvenile delinquency. “Whatever it takes, we have to put something in place for these kids,” he said.
Darensburg has long advocated for additional financial support for the court to hire social workers to follow each child already in the system. “Kids need to be supervised,” the judge said. As an example, he points to the success of the current Evening Reporting Center. Program staff pick up a child from school for a series of activities, including homework assistance, an evening meal, recreation, counseling and a call with a parent or parents. The children are brought home starting at 8 p.m. “But if a parent is working during the evening hours, the child again is remains unsupervised,” he noted.
Darensburg remembers the importance the Midnight Basketball previously played in the community and suggested similar programs be put in place. The Young Marines programs have also been successful in helping teens find purpose and structure in their lives.
Darensburg would also like to develop interventions that target high-risk youth. The new Healing Circle program that has been implemented by officers in Brooklyn, New York’s 61st precinct might be an appropriate model. Created for high-risk youth likely to commit gun violence, these teens in need of a second chance gather weekly for discussions led by a therapist and are paid a $150 stipend per attendance to participate. None of the program participants have been arrested with a gun or involved in a shooting since the program began four months ago. Though the program is small, with only 15 participants, it shows that community-based non-violence efforts can be a successful part of a crime-fighting strategy. Darensburg would also like to divert low-risk youth away from conventional judicial proceedings.
During 2020, 722 juveniles who were arrested by the New Orleans Police Department received intake services and assessments by Juvenile Court. Available statistics reveal a wide range of criminality. The majority of these juveniles (403) were arrested only once, and 72 were arrested twice. Two teens had been arrested 11 to 20 times.
In 2021, 568 juvenile intake assessments were completed, showing 312 juveniles with one arrest, 61 with two arrests and one teenager at the top of the chart with nine arrests. Although intake assessments are compared to petitioned cases, the District Attorney’s Office has two years to file a petition on misdemeanor charges and four years on felony charges.
Statistics from June 2020 to June 2021 indicate that 42.7% of juvenile offenders were arrested for simple burglary and 13.9% for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. Twenty-three youth (1.6%) were charged with second-degree murder. During 2021, Juvenile Court judges conducted 8,101 court proceedings.
In an assessment of repeat juvenile offenders produced by crime statistician Jeff Asher of Datalytics for the New Orleans City Council, the number of juveniles arrested in 2019 fell to the lowest level since data became available in 2012. Still, the average juvenile suspect was arrested more often and faced more changes than in previous years.
Just 10% of juvenile arrestees received almost half of all recorded charges. Juveniles who were detained were detained about as often in 2019 as in previous years with more frequent detentions strongly associated with longer periods of incarceration. In other words, a smaller group of juveniles continue to commit crimes with greater frequency and more jail time.
Until this pattern changes, through either early intervention or expensive incarceration, New Orleanians can expect teens to commit more carjackings, auto burglaries and even murders.
It appears that law-abiding New Orleanians have finally reached their tipping point when it comes to crime. “Citizens are angry, and that anger is not going away. The Costco carjacking got everybody’s attention,” said Rafael Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “The public now recognizes that some of the promises made by elected officials have not panned out. They are seeking more than lip service. They are demanding real investment,”
Council members led by City Council President Helena Moreno have already stepped up. Even Mayor Cantrell is talking about police raises. We can’t blame children for being born into poor families where parents are unprepared, unwilling or unable to provide the foundation these kids need. But we can blame ourselves — as a community — for not trying to address this problem once and for all.
Something is terribly wrong with Tyrese Harris. If New Orleanians don’t want to be victimized by more young adults like him, we must act now.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She is a member of the Democratic Parish Executive Committee. Columbus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.