In 2006, in the small town of Jena, La., six Black teenagers were arrested for assaulting 17-year-old Justin Barker, a White student, on their high school campus during a week of heated racial tension. Barker spent two and a half hours in the emergency room before being released, and later that night he attended his school’s annual class ring ceremony. The Black teens were initially charged with attempted murder for the assault on Barker.
The case for the group, who came to be known as the ‘Jena 6,’ sparked a national outcry for reform in the juvenile justice system for African Americans. Thousands of protesters, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, converged on the town of about 3,000, leading to the charges being reduced to aggravated battery and conspiracy battery for all but one of the teenagers.
Mychal Bell, who was 16 at the time of the attack and was on probation from a December 2005 battery conviction, had two subsequent violent crimes, and was charged as an adult.
In 1999, 12 and 13-year-old siblings Curtis and Catherine Jones were the youngest children to be convicted of murder in the United States. The pair plotted to kill a family member who had been sexually abusing them; the pair also attempted to kill their father and his girlfriend whom the two thought were allowing the abuse to continue. After killing their father’s girlfriend first, the siblings fled to a wooded area near the home and were found by the police the next day. Despite the documentation of sexual abuse by social service agencies and their age, Curtis and Catherine were convicted by a Florida court and served 18 years for first degree murder.
In April 1989, five Black and Latino teenagers, ages 14-16, from Harlem, N.Y., were convicted of raping a White woman jogging through Central Park. Four of the teens served approximately seven years in prison and one was behind bars for almost 13 years. In 2002, an investigation found DNA and other evidence proving the woman had been raped and beaten not by the five teenagers but by a convicted rapist and murderer who confessed to acting alone in the attack.
The Jena 6, the Curtis and Catherine Jones case and the defendents in the Central Park Jogger case demonstrate what seems to be a rule more than the exception when it comes to sentencing for African American juveniles in the United States. Although overall arrest rates have been steadily declining nationally, Black youth are still twice as likely to be arrested as Whites. Black youth comprise 17 percent of all juveniles in the U.S., but 31 percent of all youth arrests.
Once arrested, according to the Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice, Fairness and Equity, youth of color nationwide are significantly more likely to be incarcerated than White youth. They also receive stiffer sentencing. In fact, in 2013, Black youth were 4.6 times as likely; Native American youth 3.3 times as likely; and Latino youth were 1.7 times as likely to be incarcerated.
According to Burns in its report “Unbalanced Juvenile Justice,” the U.S. stands out in its use of youth incarceration. America incarcerates youth at higher rates than anywhere in the world: five times the rate of South Africa; 15 times the rate of Germany and 30 times the rate of Italy. With more than 75 percent of youth locked up for non-violent offenses, the U.S does not have an alarming crime problem; we have an alarming incarceration problem. And it’s a problem primarily for youth of color.
Nearly 55,000 youth were incarcerated on any given night in 2013, most (87 percent) for non-violent offenses. The majority (66 percent) were youth of color.
Under California’s Proposition 21, which passed in March 2000, juveniles 14 years of age or older charged with committing certain types of murder or a serious sex offense, are generally no longer eligible for juvenile court, and prosecutors are allowed to directly file charges against juvenile offenders in adult court for a variety of circumstances without having to get the permission of the juvenile court.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Lawson II, who is the Supervising Judge of the Long Beach Delinquency Court, says that the number of cases he sees in juvenile court is down. Some juveniles bypass his courtroom altogether and are tried as adults.
Judge Lawson said that pressure to reduce the total number of juveniles coming through the system also came from the public. “There was a lot of public pressure about the pipeline from schools to prison. Looking at the number of kids that were being referred for prosecution and seeing that there could be other alternatives, I think it was also the public pressure with schools in terms of using the police to deal with disciplinary problems,” said Judge Lawson.
Although the percentage of juvenile filings is down in California and many other states across the nation, in the deep South, the arrest rates, along with the convictions and sentencing of African American youth, remain disproportionately high compared to their numbers in the general population as well as that of Whites. In Southern states like Louisiana, African American juveniles comprise more than 99 percent of the juvenile jail population.
Chief New Orleans Public Defender Derwyn Bunton, who was counsel for Theo Shawn—one of the Jena 6—says that progress in improving the juvenile justice system, is moving at a glacial pace. “The trend is not improving. There’s a huge disparity here in Louisiana and in New Orleans, in particular. A huge disparity between the number of African American juveniles that get arrested and transferred to adult court for prosecution and the number of White juveniles that get arrested period. Last year, 99 percent of all general arrests were African Americans here in the city of New Orleans. In 2013, it was 94 or 95 percent. I don’t expect that trend to change.”
According to Bunton, juvenile incarceration in Lousiana and other Southern states is meant to be punitive, not rehabilitative. “In Louisiana, if a 14-year-old goes to adult court, the maximum sentence is until their 31st birthday. If a 15- or 16-year goes to court, they are subject to adult penalties. So if the charge carries life without parole, they get life without parole. If it carries 20 years, they get 20 years. The most common crime kids are arrested for and sent to the adult system for is armed robbery. [And] if it’s with a gun, it’s a minimum of 15 years, maximum of 104; and if it’s without a gun, it’s 10 to 99 years.”
Shawn is one of the lucky ones. After spending months languishing in jail as one of the Jena 6, he was released. After serving seven months because he was unable to post bail, Shaw pleaded “no contest” to the battery charges and was released. With the proper counseling and support, he finished high school and entered law school at Washington University with a full scholarship earlier this year.
“What people need to keep in mind in our juvenile justice system is to try to remember back to when you were a teenager. Think about how rational or probably irrational you were and how impulsive, how insecure you probably were,” said Bunton. “Think about how you acted out on that insecurity. Use that to temper all of our current policies with some common sense and a belief that folks are better than the worse thing they’ve ever done. I think we’d be a lot better for it,” added the former defense lawyer.