Jena case won't end inequity

The Baltimore Sun

Four years before an indifferent, drowsy press and public finally fumed at the news that a prosecutor and judge tossed the book at six black teens in a small Louisiana town for beating up a white teen after a racially charged incident, investigators sternly warned that the state's juvenile justice system was horribly mangled.

The legislative investigating team found that the state couldn't lock up juveniles fast enough for mostly nonviolent crimes. The 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 jailing, they are scarce and underfunded, and Louisiana officials have resisted calls to increase funding and resources to boost these programs.

The investigators also found, unsurprisingly, that black teens were hit with far stiffer sentences than white teens for the same crimes. Studies have show that black teens are six times more likely to be tried and sentenced to prison than young whites, even when the crimes are similar to or 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 the public furor over the case, reduced charges against two of the youths. 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 and 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. The legislators read and watch the same relentless stream of news reports of drive-by shootings, drug shootouts and gang wars, most of them involving young black people. This confirms the terrified feeling that many Americans have that young people - especially young black males - are out of control.

They are convinced that teen violence has spawned a new class of youthful "super predators" and that the juvenile justice system is far too easy on them. The notion that juveniles are running wild, though, is a myth. According to recent FBI crime figures, the rates for murder and assault among teenagers have plummeted since 1993, even among black teens.

Yet politicians have overreacted badly to the public panic. In the past decade, more than 30 states have loosened laws requiring juveniles to be tried and sentenced in juvenile courts. The criminal justice system's harsh treatment of black youths, such as the Jena teens, fuels the suspicion of many African-Americans that judges, prosecutors and probation officers bend over backward 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 character flaws, such as chronic disrespect toward authority, and to brand them as inherent troublemakers. They were more likely to blame white teens' bad behavior on conditions such as hanging out with the wrong crowd or 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 outrage over the Jena case will probably force town prosecutors to edge 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 habitual lawbreakers and that the public clamors for prosecutors to heave the book at them. And that's exactly what they routinely do in daily courts throughout the country.

It's business as usual for black teen offenders, and Jena won't change that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His e-mail is

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