Since when does a schoolyard brawl merit charges of attempted murder? Since when does teenage sex merit a 10-year sentence in a state penitentiary?
The cases of the Jena Six — six black youths accused of attempted murder in Jena, La. — and of Genarlow Wilson — sentenced to prison after a teenage girl performed oral sex on him when he was 17 — are complicated and messy. But the cases reflect a disturbing pattern in which young black men find the full weight of the law thrown against them more frequently than white men. In the Jena case, the six young black teens are accused of beating a white youth in a schoolyard brawl. The youth suffered a concussion and a swollen eye but was able to attend a school function that night. He also was part of a group of white youths who had been feuding with the black youths over schoolyard turf. In one confrontation, another white youth pulled a gun.
Do the charges against the black teens fit the crime? Genarlow Wilson made a poor decision. He attended a teenage New Year’s Eve party in a motel where drugs, alcohol and sexual activity were rampant. Some of the activity was videotaped. Again, does a 10-year sentence for receiving oral sex from a classmate fit the crime? According to a study by the Campaign for Youth Justice, black youths represented 28 percent of juvenile arrests between 2002 and 2004. However, black youths were 58 percent of youths sent to adult prisons in that time.
Underpinning any system of law should be a sense of justice. Discretion and leniency are often part of the prosecutorial and judicial toolbox. But when it comes to young black men, those tools are often discarded. A study by The Miami Herald earlier in the decade found that white offenders were 50 times more likely to receive lenient treatment than black men who committed similar crimes and had similar records. The quality of legal representation can be critical. Michael Bell, who faces a 22-year sentence in the Jena case, had a public defender who appears to have put little effort into the defense.
All too often, black males are treated as if they were pathological threats to social order. Consider, according to Department of Justice statistics, in June, 2006, more than 838,000 black men were incarcerated in adult facilities (at 41 percent, the largest racial group in the prisons). Pf those, more than 190,000 were younger than 24 and more than 30,000 were younger than 19. Poverty and lack of education have contributed to high crime rates in some African-American communities, but the disparities in the system (from charges filed through the sentencing) should cause us to ask whether some other factor is at play.
The bottom line? When will young black men who face the criminal justice system be treated fairly and equitably?
6 August 2007