Defending the Indefensible

Defending the Indefensible


“One of the interesting ways of settling the race problem comes to the fore in this period of unemployment among the poor. In Waterloo, Kentucky, the enterprising chief of police is arresting all unemployed Negroes and putting them in jail, thus securing their labor for the state at the cheapest possible figure. This bright idea did not originate in Kentucky. It is used through the South and strong sermons and editorials are written against ‘lazy’ Negroes. Despite this there are people in this country who wonder at the increase in ‘crime’ among colored people.”
— W.E.B. Du Bois, unsigned editorial,
“Logic,” The Crisis, Vol. 9 (January, 1915), p. 132

As a nation, we incarcerate more people per capita than any other nation in the world. For the last six years, I have worked in the field of re-entry. Re-entry, for those that don’t know, is the term used to describe the distinctly US phenomenon of 650,000 men and women – mostly black and Latino/a – who are released yearly from prisons and jails. They are for the most part not being released to communities in Utah or upscale communities such as Scarsdale or Beverly Hills. For the most part, they are released to communities such as East LA, Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Brooklyn has what some criminologists are now calling the “Million Dollar Blocks.” These are blocks in which the state spends more than million dollars a year to incarcerate individuals who come from those blocks. On some of these blocks, stand schools that very likely hold classes in retrofitted closets and bathrooms, have no computers or real libraries.

You do the math…

More than anything else, the Jena Six tragedy is about everyday US injustice. It’s not an aberration, but the norm. The irony being that even before the incidents of Jena came to pass a Louisiana legislative investigating team warned that the state’s juvenile justice system was horribly mangled.

It found that the state couldn’t lock up juveniles fast enough for mostly non-violent crimes. The investigative team noted that the sentences slapped on them were wildly out of proportion to their crimes, and that the kids had almost no access to counseling, job, and skills training, and family support programs that could ensure that they didn’t wind up back in the slammer.

Though alternative sentencing programs are far more cost effective than incarceration, they are scarce and under-funded, and Louisiana officials have resisted all pleas to increase funding and resources to boost these programs.

This investigative team also found that black teens were hit with far stiffer sentences than white teens for the same crimes. It made no difference whether the whites had a prior history of criminal or bad behavior and the black teens were altar boys and had a squeaky-clean record. The blacks still got harsher sentences.

Countless studies show that a black teen is six times more likely to be tried and sentenced to prison than a young white, even when the crimes are similar, or even less severe than those committed by white teens.

Nationally, blacks make up 40 percent of youths tried in adult courts and nearly 60 percent of those sentenced to state prisons.

In Jena, the prosecutor, mostly because of a largely under reported grassroots campaign against the case, reduced charges against two of the youth. But that’s an exception. Prosecutors nearly always push for hard time for offenders. This is infuriatingly apparent in Jena. One of the defendants, a star football player, was convicted on a reduced battery charge. Yet, he still could get a 15-year prison sentence.

The investigators implored the legislature to do something to correct the problem. They came up with a series of reform recommendations. They were largely ignored and four years later, state legislators have shown little inclination to fully enact the juvenile justice reforms.

Louisiana legislators haven’t turned a deaf ear to screams for reform solely out of ignorance, apathy, or fear of a public backlash. The legislators read and watch the same relentless stream of newspaper and television reports of drive-by shootings, drug shootouts, and gang wars, most of them involving young blacks. This confirms the terrified feeling that many Americans have that young people – especially young black males – are out of control.

In the 1990s, influential conservative sociologists and news pundits convinced a largely fearful and racist American public that unwed (and therefore immoral) crack-addicted, black teens were giving birth to litters of irredeemable black babies who grow up to be “super predators.” Conservatives convinced a fearful and largely ignorant public that teen violence has spawned a new class of mostly Black youthful sociopaths and that the juvenile justice system was far too easy on them.

The idea that juveniles are running wild though is a myth.

According to the FBI’s most recent crime figures, the rates for murder and assault among teenagers have plummeted since 1993, even among black teens. In fact, today’s youth are less likely to have out-of-wedlock babies, become addicted, or use drugs than previous generations. That’s a fact. However, that fact hasn’t stopped a narcissistic adult class from using young people as scapegoats for almost everything that’s wrong with the world.

And politicians have overreacted badly and predictably to the public panic. In the past decade, more than 30 states have loosened, if not eliminated, laws requiring juveniles be tried and sentenced in juvenile courts.

The criminal justice system’s harsh treatment of young blacks, like the Jena Six, fuels the suspicion of many blacks that judges, prosecutors and probation officers bend way over backwards to give young white offenders the benefit of the doubt and are far less willing to label and treat them as dangerous habitual offenders, even when they commit violent crimes.

One study of the attitudes of probation officers toward black and white teen offenders found that they were far more likely to attribute black juvenile crimes to such family or character flaws as chronic disrespect toward authority and to brand them as inherent troublemakers.

They were more likely to blame white bad behavior on conditions outside their control such as hanging out with the wrong crowd, or to troubling family conflicts. Judges and prosecutors read the probation reports and heed their recommendations and if they are favorable, as they are more often than not with young whites, judges are much more inclined to approve alternative sentencing or treatment programs for them. An unfavorable report is just as likely to result in hard time in juvenile or adult jails.

The public outcry over the Jena case will probably force town prosecutors to back away a little more from the harsh charges against the teens, but only a little. They, like prosecutors everywhere, are convinced that black teens are genetically criminal and that the public demands for them to throw the book at them. And that’s exactly what they routinely do in daily courts throughout the country.

The Jena case is about systemic racism and a criminal justice system that unfairly and deliberately targets children of color. And the fact is that too many people are losing sight of the forest for the trees. That’s the tragedy.

Wake the fuck up, people!

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