In the past month, I anxiously awaited the outcomes of several important civil rights and criminal justice court decisions. But the case that triggered the strongest and most varied emotions was the criminal trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman, who followed, shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
In the aftermath of the verdict, President Barack Obama, facing a divided nation, encouraged Americans to channel their passionate views into calm reflection and action. He commented that African-Americans' dismay about the verdict could be explained by our experiences and the history of race relations in the U.S.
While he did not specify historical events, I immediately thought about how black America endured almost 250 years of enslavement during which black families, particularly men and boys, were brutalized and murdered simply because of their race. I recalled stories told by my parents, who grew up in the segregated South and were forced to use "colored only" public facilities or face arrest or the threat of bodily harm. I remembered my own experience in a New York City department store of being followed by a sales clerk who undoubtedly was suspicious of my intentions after I, an African-American college student at the time, told her I was just browsing and did not need her help.
This country's history of race relations explains the conflicting feelings of grief, frustration and hope I feel after the Zimmerman verdict. I continue to grieve the needless death of yet another black child and am frustrated with a criminal justice system that allows a person to racially profile and fatally shoot an unarmed teenager without consequence. But I also feel a sense of hope after observing the peaceful demonstrations of thousands of Americans of many races and ethnicities who are determined to turn Trayvon's tragic death into a national movement to advance laws that will ensure justice for all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin.
In Maryland, we are working on several fronts to accomplish this, including campaigns to end policing and other criminal justice practices that unfairly affect African-American youths.
According to a report commissioned by Open Society Institute-Baltimore, "Why Are So Many Youth Entangled in Baltimore's Justice System," the number of youth arrests in Baltimore is declining. But the percentage of African-American youths who are arrested has increased. Black youths are six times more likely to be arrested than their white peers. The report concluded that the racial differences could be explained by strained relationships with police and stereotyping of African-American youths.
To address this problem, Youth Unlocked: Baltimore's Campaign to Reduce Youth Arrests is working to reduce youth arrests and associated racial disparities by partnering with the Baltimore Police Department and nonprofit organizations. Its goals are to build trusting relationships between youths and police; to divert youths accused of nonviolent offenses, such as marijuana possession, to community-based programs instead of arresting them; and to create and promote job opportunities for young people in Baltimore.
In Maryland, youths who are accused of certain serious offenses are arrested and charged as adults. These young people are predominantly African-American. In Baltimore, however, about 70 percent of these youths either have their cases dismissed or are sent to the juvenile court system.
The Just Kids Partnership, an alliance of Baltimore City-based nonprofit organizations, has led a multi-year effort to end the automatic prosecution of youths as adults for certain crimes. It has relied on the growing body of research showing that youths are developmentally different from adults and therefore less culpable and more responsive to treatment. Also, young people in the adult criminal justice system are more likely to be hardened by the experience and commit more crimes than young people in the juvenile justice system.
After years of public pressure, the Maryland legislature created the Task Force on Juvenile Court Jurisdiction, which will determine whether to eliminate the practice of charging youths as adults. The task force will begin its meetings in August and issue a report of its findings in December.
While nothing will change the fact that young Trayvon Martin is no longer with us, I am hopeful that the justice reform movement in Maryland and around the country will send the loud message that the lives of black men and boys matter, and criminal laws that unfairly affect African-Americans and other people of color should be eliminated.
I urge all of those who despair about the loss of Trayvon Martin to support these local justice reform efforts and make our community a safer and more just community for all of our young people.
Monique L. Dixon is the director of the criminal and juvenile justice program at Open Society Institute-Baltimore. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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