Hundreds of New Orleans students got a hands-on civics lesson this week. They rallied at the state capitol to support a bill that would keep 17-year-olds out of adult court and prison.
It’s a time-honored tradition. Civics teachers cart out a TV or flick on a projector and play the Schoolhouse Rock! video “I’m Just a Bill.” It follows a cartoon bill – a so-called “sad little scrap of paper” – on its journey to becoming a law.
It’s clear and catchy – a civic teacher’s dream. But over the last couple months, local teachers have pushed the lesson a lot farther. They’ve designed curricula around a real bill, with real implications.
In Louisiana, 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults, and sent to adult prison. Senate Bill 324 would change that. It would raise the age of adulthood to 18, and bring Louisiana in line with 41 other states.
Not surprisingly, it’s a bill most students support. Like in a 12th grade civics class at Carver Collegiate Academy. Students sit in a semi-circle, laptops open at their desks. They type up and read out responses to the prompt: Why do this issue matter to you?
“It’s embarrassing for us to have one of the highest incarceration rates of kids in the world,” one student says.
“It’s not just me,” says another. ”It’s like the people that’s coming up under me. And the first time they get in trouble it’s like they go to a big jail where they’re not gonna come back home the same because they see what a 17-year-old not supposed to see.”
Teacher Katie Wills says students were instantly invested in this issue. “17-year-olds being tried as an adult is intensely personal,” she says. “Particularly if you have younger siblings, that’s a big thing that kids talk about is their fear for their siblings, their cousins. So it’s not only personal from a self-interest standpoint but this is their community.”
This isn’t a distant issue, studied at a remove. Here in the incarceration capital of the world, many students have a personal connection to the prison system. Like senior Tuireiona Reid. She designed a whole senior project on why juveniles shouldn’t be tried as adults, and turned to multiple sources for research: scholarly articles, posts on NOLA.com, and her own family members.
“I get to, you know, call some of my family members while I’m in school to get like more background information on people in my family that went to jail,” she says. “You know, what they went to jail for and how much time they got. And like just trying to figure out what caused them to make the decisions that they made. It’s like a stress reliever for me.”
But it’s also troubling. Reid and her classmates were outraged by what they learned. Like how the law says when 17-year-olds get arrested, the police don’t have to call their parents. And how teens held in adult prison are significantly more likely than those in juvenile detention to be physically or sexually assaulted, or to commit suicide. Plus, trying juveniles as adults actually increases recidivism by as much as 34%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the LSU Institute for Public Health and Justice.
Some worry Louisiana’s juvenile justice system doesn’t have the money to add 17 year olds. But Reid says the cost of adult prison is higher. “That’s just setting people up to get hurt and setting that person up just to be in and out of jail their entire life,” she says.
“The class theme is command the attention of the world,” says Katie Wills. “I mean what more can you do than to stand in front of the capitol of your state and demand change to a law? I just would love for kids to really get a sense that the status quo is movable.”
And to do that, her students joined hundreds more for Youth Justice Day at the state capitol, to rally in support of the Raise the Age Act.
On Wednesday, another civics teacher – across town, at Cohen College Prep – ushered her students onto school buses bound for the capitol building. They were paid for by the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which organized Youth Justice Day. Cassady Rosenblum also built a unit around the senate bill.
That lit a fire in tenth grader and aspiring politician Daunté Martin. She leaned forward in her bus seat, eager for the trip ahead. “I’m big on education,” she said. “Especially for children. And when I read that children were not being educated while being held at OPP I’m like ‘oh no. This is not what’s up.’ I’m like no, this is something definitely worth fighting for.”
In Baton Rouge, Martin and her peers took their place on the capitol steps, next to other high schoolers from New Orleans and Lafayette, as Governor John Bel Edwards spoke in support of the bill.
“Louisiana is the incarceration capital of this country,” he said. We know this. We are way behind the curve on a lot of things. Let’s not be the last in the nation once again. Let’s not be at the top of this bad list any longer than is necessary.”
Katie Wills’ civics students were there too. Senior Bricole Hawkins held a giant cardboard arrow, painted orange and pointing up. A clear visual, urging legislators to raise the age. If she had her way, they’d raise it way up.
“Me personally, I would say 21 because you know when you make 18 your parents always be like ‘oh just because you’re 18 it doesn’t make you grown,’” she says. “But we’re 18 and they’re sending us to grown people’s jail. So I don’t think that’s fair.”
But for now, she’ll push for the current bill, which is expected to go before the senate next week.
This story originally was originally published by WWNO on April 8, 2016.