Preventing Another Jena 6
Alan Jenkins, TomPaine.com
September 25, 2007Alan Jenkins is Executive Director of The Opportunity Agenda, a communications, research, and advocacy organization with the mission of building the national will to expand opportunity in America. He previously served as Assistant to the Solicitor General at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Last week, thousands of marchers walked the streets of Jena, Louisiana, protesting biased treatment of six African-American teenagers who've come to be known as the Jena 6. By now, their story is well known to most Americans: the nooses hung from a "white" tree after black teens dared sit beneath it, with the white perpetrators receiving just three days' suspension; the threats and intimidation of black students, including by law enforcement; the school fight in which six black teens beat a white classmate; and the district attorney's remarkable decision to charge the black teens with attempted murder—charges that have since been reduced, but continue to hang over the young men's heads.
The circumstances are dramatic and, of course, recall the worst of the Deep South's Jim Crow legacy, when the noose and lynchings went hand in hand with abusive law enforcement. But the students' case taps into the deep frustration that so many black people feel about a larger criminal justice system that singles them out for harsher punishment and incarceration.
The evidence of unequal justice in cities and towns around the country is vast. In a report released just this summer, for example, The Sentencing Project found, among other things, that African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and Latinos at nearly double the rate of whites. Research shows that this disproportionality far outpaces any racial differences in the commission of crime.
Equal justice is especially at risk when, as in Jena, young people of color are involved. A 1999 report by the US Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found "substantial evidence of widespread disparity in juvenile case processing." Young people of color are more likely than whites to be caught up in the juvenile justice system, and more likely to be placed in public secure facilities, while white youth are more likely to be placed in private facilities or diverted from the juvenile system altogether.
As in Jena, the race or ethnicity of kids accused of wrongdoing is particularly likely to influence their fate at the intake and detention phases. A report by Building Blocks for Youth found that African-American young people are almost 25 percent more likely than whites to have their cases referred to adult courts, even when charged with the same offenses; that African-American youth are more likely than whites to receive a disposition of out-of-home placement such as commitment to a locked facility, while white youth are more likely to be placed on probation for the same types of offenses; and that even when the type of offense and prior record are the same, incarceration rates for state public facilities are higher for African-American and Latino youth than for whites.
Justice for the Jena 6 is important for symbolic reasons, as well as for the accused, their families, and their community. But the research makes clear that a fair resolution in Jena-in the spotlight of national protests and media-will not, on its own, improve the deeply flawed system that exists, unnoticed by the public, in so many other parts of our country.
Fortunately, as Building Blocks for Youth reported in a 2005 study, a number of promising practices have emerged for addressing the wider problem. The best of these reduce overall detention and incarceration of young people while creating a more fair and effective system.
In Seattle, Washington, for example, a partnership between advocates and government cut the number of youth of color in detention by almost half. Their techniques included an advisory board of judges, elected officials, prosecutors, public defenders, policy, and community groups; analyzing crime data by race, offense, time, and location; and mapping of neighborhood strengths—like recreation centers and schools—as well as weaknesses—like empty lots and liquor stores. They used the data to target intervention and services, equipped police with objective detention intake criteria, and strengthened alternatives to detention. Santa Cruz County, California and Portland, Oregon, used similar tactics and saw similar gains.
Preventing the kinds of excesses seen in Jena also requires checks on prosecutorial discretion. Working with the Brennan Center for Justice, a group of former prosecutors has issued recommended guidelines for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion to ensure the fair and effective administration of justice. The group's recommendations include educating prosecutors about the role of racial bias in the criminal justice system and providing "training to all supervisors, attorneys, and other staff that is specifically directed toward eliminating racial bias and racial stereotyping in recruitment, hiring, retention, promotion, supervision, and prosecutorial decision-making."
Finally, human rights advocacy and protest of the kind we've seen around the Jena case is essential to ensuring accountability and equal justice. Before Jena fades from the public eye, we must broaden our focus to address the deeper problems of racial bias in our criminal justice system.