The Law and Juvenile Justice for People of Color in Elementary and Secondary Schools

By Brown, Frank; Russo, Charles J. et al. | The Journal of Negro Education, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Law and Juvenile Justice for People of Color in Elementary and Secondary Schools


Brown, Frank, Russo, Charles J., Hunter, Richard C., The Journal of Negro Education


The "crime control" laws enacted in the last two decades have had a negative impact on children of color. The changes in juvenile justice are imposing a form of social control over children of color. However, increased laws and punishments have not deterred juveniles engaged in delinquent behavior. Instead, these changes have merely increased the number of criminals. An alternative solution would be to teach children about the justice system through education on the Constitution. Young people, including children of color, will be inclined to obey the law if they understand the laws and their individual relationship to the Constitution, the courts, and the political process.

In America, conservative members of hegemonic groups are using a call for improved "crime control" measures as a mechanism to control members of marginalized groups by supporting strict criminal codes to control and restrict the constitutional rights of these politically marginalized groups (McNeil, 2002). Federal and state governments in the United States, from the 1960s to the present, have increasingly used crime control measures to restrict the rights of citizens with the major negative results falling on members of non-hegemonic groups-African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. We examine the impact of these crime control measures designed to exercise increased social control over the poor, with restrictions of the rights of minority children enrolled in our public schools. We restrict our research to public schools because the Bill of Rights in our federal Constitution applies to state action as required by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and not to the private actions of nonpublic schools. Further, most children of color are enrolled in our public schools (Orfield & Yun, 1999).

In 1994, the U.S. Congress enacted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The 1994 act, known as the "Three Strikes" Crime Bill, also directed the U.S. Sentencing Commission to make mandatory prison sentencing for certain illegal drug use and sale. For example, the possession of crack cocaine would result in a five-year sentence for a first offense, but for a first offense for the possession of powder cocaine results in a one-year sentence. Further, the possession of 5 grams of crack would result in the same prison sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine. At the end of 1995, African Americans constituted 85% of all persons convicted of drug use or sale under this law (Brown, 2002). The 1994 Crime Bill also made it possible to prosecute children as young as 13 years old as adults.

The federal government and 26 states have three strikes laws, but California is the only state that does not require that the third strike be a violent crime. In California, a nonviolent crime of residential burglary may qualify as a first or second strike (Skipitares, 2002a). In the seven years since the passage of California's Three Strikes Law, nonviolent residential burglary is the second most common third strike accounting for 11% of all cases with robbery being the most common. In 2002, nearly half of the state's 7,206 threestrikers received 25 years to life sentences for a nonviolent third strike, including drug possession and petty theft. For example, Jed Miller in 1995 was sentenced to the maximum for stealing two bicycles and a truck; and another person drew a 25 years to life sentence for shoplifting two bottles of cognac from a Safeway supermarket (Skipitares, 2002b). African Americans make up 7% of California's population, 31% of the overall prison population, and 44% of all the three-strikers in prisons (Skipitares, 2002c). Even in Santa Clara County south of San Francisco where African Americans comprise only 4% of the population, they comprise 32% of the three-strikers. Some claim that robbery, the most frequent crime for which three strikes defendants are jailed, is disproportionately aimed at African Americans; and the statute is picking on African Americans as a group.

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