NEW ORLEANS — In a clear example of the revolving door for repeat juvenile offenders in New Orleans, Quinton Skipper still hasn’t been tried in a carjacking spree from when he was 16. The 48-hour spree left a trail of nine victims who were punched, beaten and dragged from their vehicles.
Now 18, Skipper was recently booked as an adult in a string of fresh new robberies and carjackings. Despite the fact that his two juvenile co-defendants pled guilty in 2019 and remained locked up, Skipper was released from jail with his charges still pending.
Skipper’s family said juvenile authorities promised he would be placed in a program to address his problems and deter his delinquent behavior, but that never happened.
“He just wanted to fit in,” said his mother Cardella Skipper, explaining that her son has had difficulties since suffering a brain aneurysm at 14. “They didn't get him the help that he needed. The system failed him.”
Experts point to the critical need for intervention when a kid takes the wrong road. Those willing to carjack someone at gunpoint show the classic signs of a young brain seeking an adrenaline jolt. There is little concern about consequences.
Add peer pressure and easy access to guns and drugs, and you have a dangerous mix, according to juvenile behavioral expert Stephen Phillipi of the LSU School of Public Health.
“This is an impulsive, risk-taking decision made on the part of these kids,” Phillipi said. “This is largely peer-driven very risky behavior on their part without any thought or concern with the person on the other end of that gun.”
In New Orleans, we've seen this behavior spin out of control, especially in recent months. Concerned citizens, expressing everything from fear to anger, have demanded action, circulated petitions, and even staged a rally in front of City Hall. In response, city officials have addressed the problem with a series of City Council hearings and various crime-fighting plans.
But rarely do we hear from the kids themselves. Until now.
Using a pseudonym of Terrance to conceal his identity, one youngster sat down with WWL-TV to share his story about being arrested in a recent carjacking.
Terrance comes across as a normal 16-year-old. He's a decent student and good athlete, especially on the basketball court. But there have been hardships, starting with being raised by his grandmother since he was four.
He had never been in serious trouble until one day in January when he missed the school bus. Some kids he recognized from the neighborhood drove up and told him to jump in.
“They were going to take me to school and things went left and ended up in a place I didn't even know where I was at,” he said.
There were a lot of things Terrance says he didn't know would unfold that day. He didn't know the car had been stolen at gunpoint. That the blunt being passed around was spiked with something stronger than weed.
“I was thinking to myself, 'Where am I? And what can I do to get out of this situation?' But then you look back and it be too late,” he said.
When he jumped into that car, Terrance said he didn’t realize it had been taken in a carjacking.
“No, I didn't until, until after the incident,” he said. “I didn't even know. I didn't even know where the car came from or anything.”
Terrance says he also didn't know the neighborhood where they ended up. And why, suddenly, people were shooting at them.
“I just saw all the glass break,” he recalled. “And when we crashed, that's when I realized the people who were in front looked like they were shot, bleeding.”
For Terrance, things got real in a hurry.
“I was disappointed,” he said, “I never thought me, myself, would be ended up in that predicament.”
Police arrived. Then an ambulance. One of the juveniles suffered a graze wound, another was cut by glass. Terrance was OK, but disoriented as he was handcuffed to a hospital bed. Next stop: juvenile lockup.
“He (the jailer) said, go sit down, you're in jail. And I just sat down in the cell. Looking at the ceiling,” Terrance said.
As he sat in a holding cell at the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center, Terrance said he went over everything that happened, how it could have gone differently. He tried to explain the impulse that led him to get in the car in the first place.
“Sometimes it's by just following, you know, like, persuasion. People just want to fit in.”
Later that day, Terrance's grandmother got a call anyone with kids would dread.
“This certain detective was explaining to me what had happened and I was like, ‘Oh my God. This boy told me he was in school.’ she said.
Her mind raced.
“This boy might go to jail,” she recalled thinking. “Because they don't care about first-time offenders no more. It's so bad with all this stuff going on, they'll make an example out of a first-time offender.”
The system did not try to make an example of Terrance. He was released to his grandmother. He is working on resolving his case by accepting a charge of unauthorized use of a movable. He can put the episode behind him by staying out of trouble and completing juvenile probation. If all goes well, he can expunge his record.
Brideisha Harness-Parker, the head of the New Orleans Youth Coalition, deals with many kids like Terrance. She sees the trauma in their young lives, the relentless peer pressure. But as the community searches for answers, what she doesn't see are enough people talking directly to the kids.
“Are we addressing the root of the problem at all? Are we interviewing and asking kids how they feel and what they need?” she asked. “What these kids are getting involved in, it's not anything strategically planned out.”
Harness-Parker said the recent surge in teenage carjackings is almost like an out-of-control fad, sparking copy-cat behavior by kids who see their peers get away with the crimes. And like any other fad, she believes it can fade away with the right kinds of intervention.
“I think it's something that's trending right now,” she said. “But I think it's something we can put our hands on.”
Terrance knows those kids who continue to act out, even the ones who are willing to put a gun in someone’s face and take their car. What's going through their head?
“They don't care. They are willing to take that risk because they feel that's their destiny to do those things,” he said, shaking his head.
Sometimes, nobody is around to change that trajectory, at home or on the street. As Terrance explained, a teenager who gets away with criminal behavior can get street cred, a reputation for being bad-ass. They get a twisted form of respect, then try to buck up other kids to follow them.
And that may be all they have.
“They feel like is they're on top of the world. They're not going to get trouble for doing that,” he said. “They feel that what they doing is the way of life.”
Terrance is back on the right road. He’s back in school, back on the basketball court, and he’s avoiding kids who seek trouble. He said he actively tries to steer his friend from taking risks, no matter how much peer pressure is applied. As he knows, even a seemingly harmless joyride can turn menacing in a snap.
All it takes is one wrong turn.