Jena 6 Case Highlights Injustice: Louisiana Investigation Found a Juvenile Justice System in Trouble
Hutchinson, Earl Ofari, National Catholic Reporter
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 following a racially charged incident, a Louisiana legislative investigating team sternly warned that the state's juvenile justice system was horribly mangled.
It found that the state couldn't lock up juveniles fast enough for mostly nonviolent crimes. The team noted that the sentences slapped on juveniles 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 they didn't wind up back in the slammer.
Though alternative sentencing programs are far more cost-effective than jailing, such programs 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. It made no difference whether the whites had a prior history of criminal or bad behavior and the black teens were altar boys and had squeaky clean records. The blacks still got harsher sentences. Countless studies show that a black teen is six times more likely to be tried and sentenced to prison than a young white, even when the crimes are similar, or even 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. They 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.
Louisiana legislators haven't turned a tin ear to screams for reform solely out of ignorance, inertia or fear of a public backlash. The legislators read and watch the same relentless stream of newspaper and television reports of drive-by shootings, drug shootouts and gang wars, most of them involving young blacks. This confirms the terrified feeling that many Americans have that young people--especially young black males--are out of control. …