A giant for juvenile justice

Sitting in an office full of photos, books and awards that will need to be packed in boxes during the next two months, retiring Jefferson Parish Juvenile Court Judge Nancy Amato Konrad is quick to tell you that she really doesn’t like talking about herself.

Her colleagues, fortunately, don’t have the same problem.

“When it comes to juvenile law, Nancy Konrad is the guru, and I don’t think there’s anyone in the state who would disagree with that statement,” fellow juvenile Judge Andrea Janzen said. “There really is no one in the state that is more knowledgeable. There never has been and probably never will be.”

And Konrad’s modesty only takes her so far. Because in any conversation about how the legal landscape for Louisiana’s lost children has changed in the past three decades, it’s impossible, even for Nancy Konrad, to avoid talking about Nancy Konrad.

Konrad, who will step down as chief judge on Oct. 31, began her career by spending 15 years in private practice.

In 1976, she was asked to sit in ad hoc for Judge Thomas McGee in Division B, an experience that led her to run for the Division C seat she holds today.

“I guess it was The Year of the Woman or something,” she said, deflecting the attention one might associate with being the first woman elected to a parishwide office in Jefferson.

Konrad said she took to juvenile law like “a duck to water.” What drew her was “the idea that here, you could really make a change.”

“She truly is driven by the belief that children and families need to be treated with dignity and respect, and that those who are in a position to help them need to do just that,” said Janzen, who joined Konrad on the bench in 1996.

Janzen was assigned to Konrad’s court as a prosecutor in the early 1980s. She said Konrad always expected lawyers in her court to be prepared, but the experience was more like being mentored than scolded.

“Because of her innate respect for the law, to go into her courtroom, you knew you were doing something important,” she said.

Konrad took the bench at a time when many in juvenile law were starting to realize that the system had a critical flaw: Laws relating to children were scattered across 89 separate codes and titles.

Konrad chaired the Louisiana Children’s Code Project, and working with Lucy McGough of LSU Law School and juvenile court attorney Kären Hallstrom, she oversaw a team of more than 50 representatives from across the legal, law enforcement and public welfare communities, gathering up scraps of laws, reconciling differences and crafting what would become the bible for juvenile justice in Louisiana.

In 1991, after five years and a session-long push through the state Legislature that Konrad called “a miracle,” the Louisiana Children’s Code was born.

Janzen said the code helped transform the system into one that better serves the children and families that move through it.

“It was very difficult if you were not dealing with juvenile matters on a regular basis,” Janzen said of the days practicing law before the code. “You just didn’t even know where to look.”

Konrad said that creating the code was just the beginning, and she continues to sit on the code’s revisions committee working to make relevant updates.

The 1990s, however, provided another moment for reform, as reports by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Human Rights Watch uncovered atrocious conditions and rampant abuse in the state’s juvenile detention facilities.

“They were not doing real rehabilitation,” Konrad said. “Kids were getting worse while they were there. They weren’t improving they were declining and becoming real criminals.”

Konrad said she was particularly struck by the case of a 10-year-old child who had been terribly misplaced in the system.

“This child had done nothing serious,” Konrad said, her voice rising. “I mean, a 10-year-old really isn’t culpable. And that just made me really, terribly upset, that he was in a facility with kids that were really delinquent ... Finding out all of the terrible things going on in that place was awful.”

The Department of Justice sued the state, which resulted in the shuttering of detention centers and a legal settlement that culminated with the Louisiana Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003, which effectively split the juvenile corrections system from the adult system.

“We were the feeder system to the adult system,” Konrad said.

Konrad was tapped by Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Pascal Calogero to sit in on the settlement talks and she worked with the Legislature to help shape the reforms of 2003.

As Konrad notes, there were many people within the system who pushed for reform, but David Utter, who was with Human Rights Watch in 1995, said Konrad was a leader.

Today, he said, “it’s taken as gospel that you try to divert kids from the system whenever possible. That you limit the use of juvenile detention, and that the facilities really take care of kids and provide a safe environment and the skills they need to succeed. But back when Nancy was supporting these efforts, that gospel was not nearly as accepted as it is now.”

“That’s not a popular group of kids, kids who violate the law,” said Utter, now with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “But Nancy had a huge heart and a keen intellect. And Louisiana is a much better place because of it.”

Konrad said that time played a key role in reshaping attitudes about juvenile justice.

“The judiciary was contributing to the situation,” she said, “so we decided we really needed to do something to reform the system so we’re not increasing criminality, we are supporting families.”

She said Jefferson Parish is quite progressive when it comes to juvenile law, something she credits to policies set in motion by former Jefferson Parish District Attorney John Mamoulides that continue today under current DA Paul Connick.

“I think it was a progressive DA that saw that the way to improve criminality was through the juvenile justice system,” she said.

But Konrad is quick to add that there is always more to do. She continues to work on the code commission to improve the system, notably a 2006 change that established competency hearings for children to make sure they are able to work with counsel in their own defense.

Konrad said this law was based on studies about brain development and was key to subsequent partnerships with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Casey foundation, which are helping the parish probation system reduce recidivism and out-of-home placements.

This year, she said, also saw new regulations on pretrial detention facilities.

“You never stop growing,” she said. “If you stop growing, you die, so you never stop pushing.”

Konrad said her decision to retire wasn’t as difficult as one might expect, the timing coming down to the fact that there’s a parishwide election on the October ballot so her seat won’t cost the parish money to fill.

Konrad said there are cases that have her troubled her deeply, but refuses to talk about them. She said she considers it a blessing that she’s been able to do the job without taking much of the heartbreak she’s witnessed home.

“If you didn’t, you couldn’t keep this job,” she said. “It would kill you. It would wear you down, because what we hear most people would never believe.”

Konrad said she is looking forward to spending time with her grandchildren. Hopefully, after having several months to relax, she’ll be asked to sit in for other judges on occasion.

“Of course I’ll miss it,” she said. “It’s natural. But I am one of those truly blessed people who can truthfully say that I loved what I did. And not many people can say that.”

Her advice for the jurist who will eventually take her place?

“Have a heart for kids,” she said, pausing. “And for public safety.”