Burying the Facts:
youth, race & the criminal justice system

by Juan Gonzalez

In These Times magazine, November 1999, p9


Ever since the Columbine High School shooting in April, Congress has been under increasing pressure to do something about gun control and youth violence. The Senate and the House passed separate versions of a new juvenile crime bill in the spring, and Republican leaders of both houses are nearing agreement on a compromise version. So far, all the media attention has focused on competing gun-control provisions contained in the two bills. The Senate's version is supposedly tougher, though not by much.

But hardly anyone is listening to a national coalition of children and youth organizations that claims the nation's youth are being sacrificed to the politics of scapegoating. Provisions in both bills will be disastrous for juveniles, the coalition claims, and the Senate's version will allow the criminal justice system to step up the targeting of young blacks in disproportionate numbers. "Everyone's forgotten about the juvenile part of the juvenile justice bill," says Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, which has joined with the Children's Defense Fund, the Child Welfare League of America, the American Bar Association's Juvenile Justice Committee, Girls Inc. and a half dozen other groups to create the ad hoc group.

Everyone knows that juveniles locked up with adults become easy targets for beatings, rapes and other forms of abuse from adult inmates. But an amendment in the House bill would do away with dozens of court consent decrees that have forced state prison systems to segregate juveniles from adult prisoners and have offered youths greater protections from abusive treatment by guards. In addition, both bills would allow federal prosecutors to try youths as young as 13 as adults, increase mandatory sentences and do away with confidentiality provisions in juvenile courts.

The Senate bill would even remove a provision in current law that requires states to track the racial and minority composition of those in the juvenile justice system and to address any disproportionate confinement that is discovered. Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Jeff Sessions of Alabama gutted that requirement, labeling it a quota system and unconstitutional. In an amazing speech on the Senate floor this spring, Hatch, the powerful chairman of the Judiciary Committee, insisted there is no discrimination in our justice system: "The fact that 13 percent of the offenders are African-American and 67 percent of those incarcerated are, I don't see any information here saying that higher percentage was unjustifiably put in jail," Hatch said. "Does that mean there are a lot of white people getting off? I don't see any evidence of that. Statistics are statistics, but when people go to jail, it is generally because they have committed a crime."

Inconvenient statistics on incarceration seem to infuriate Hatch and Sessions, so they want to eliminate them. Such inconveniences include the fact that one of every three young black men in America today is in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole, a statistic so overwhelming it defies rational explanation. In his powerful new book, Race to Incarcerate, Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project reveals that in 1995, according to the federal government's own studies, African-Americans made up 13 percent of the population and 15 percent of all drug users, yet they comprised 33 percent of people arrested, 55 percent of those convicted and 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for drug possession.

Simply put, young whites who use illegal drugs in the suburbs, on college campuses or in downtown nightclubs never get targeted by massive narcotics sweeps the way blacks and Latinos in the inner city do. So the jails fill up with young blacks and Latinos and nobody questions why.

It's the same with violent crime. "Suddenly, we have all these shootings by white kids in rural communities attacking other white kids," Schiraldi says. "So what does the Senate say? Let's abolish [measures to reduce] minority disparate sentencing.... How do you figure that?" There has been a 37 percent drop in violent crime by juveniles since 1993, and a 43 percent drop in juvenile homicides, Schiraldi points out, but most of the nation believes the opposite: that youth violence is escalating spilling out of the inner city and threatening every rural and suburban community in the country.

We can thank television for that, Schiraldi claims. Between 1993 and 1996, overall homicides in the United States declined by 20 percent and homicides by juveniles dropped by nearly 15 percent-the latter dropped even more sharply during the past few years. But television news has provided just the opposite image for the American public. According to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, during that same 1993 to 1996 period, coverage of homicide on the evening news by the major television networks skyrocketed by 721 percent. But murder sells. And locking up black kids wins votes for politicians.

No wonder our law-and-order Senate wants to use public anguish over tragedies like Columbine to lock up the inconvenient facts of what our government is doing to the nation's black and Latino youth.

Prison watch