A few weeks ago, I read about a 16-year-old, tried as an adult, who was sentenced to 55 years in prison for two armed carjackings. I was mindlessly scrolling the neighborhood site, Nextdoor, when I saw the post. At first, I thought the incident had happened in Washington, DC where I live since there had been a rash of carjackings in my neighborhood, but as I read, I learned this crime had occurred in Louisiana. Louisiana? Why was it posted on my Capitol Hill, DC Nextdoor? Then I noticed the volume of comments and the viciousness of some:
- “GOOD and good riddance. Bye bye!!!!!”
- “Good!!! Hope they catch and prosecute more of these car jackers! Teens or not … people work hard for their cars and more examples need to be made.”
And when someone questioned whether folks were satisfied that the punishment fit the crime, an immediate response was, “Actually, I AM!!!!!” followed by several similar comments and encouragement for DC to be more like Louisiana.
Then, the real impact hit me. This whole situation hurt my soul: another Black child was being lost to the criminal (in)justice system, a system that I know includes a disproportionate number of Black boys and men. I was disturbed that no one seemed to care why this child was doing this. Lock him away was the only response. No mention of help or rehabilitation. I am not minimizing the crime. He was armed. The carjacking could have resulted in dire consequences (it didn’t). I understand those facts. I also understand that a 16 year old is still a child, a person who, according to Stanford University, has almost 10 more years for their brain to fully mature and make wise decisions.
Doing work on racial justice over the last few years has heightened my awareness of how bias, lack of resources and opportunities, and a host of other factors put Black kids at risk and how racism and bias are significant, often under-recognized, factors in how “justice” is meted out in America. As I reflected on my reaction to the Nextdoor exchange, I thought back to the viciousness of America’s response, not that long ago, to drugs and drug-related crimes. Remember “three strikes, you’re out,” America’s response to repeat offenders regardless of the severity of the crime? Now drug usage has evolved into a public health issue. Growing and selling marijuana has become an acceptable business. Was race a factor in this change? Some suggest that increased drug usage among suburban and rural whites was what transformed drug usage from an urban problem that was criminal to a public health problem deserving understanding and treatment. Think about that for a while.
Years ago, a former colleague suggested that prisons should be banned. At the time – about 2017 – I couldn’t wrap my mind around what I perceived as an incredibly radical, and probably unrealistic, idea. Now, I am beginning to understand that thinking. When will the social and mental health issues that undergird so many of the behaviors that place people, particularly young people, in prisons be considered? When will society focus on treatment of those underlying problems as the humane and merited response and look at the caging of humans as radical and reactionary? When will help, not punishment, become the first (or even second) intervention? Does race play a role in preventing this transformation?
For those who know their American history, the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution is correctly reported as the amendment that ended slavery. It is also the amendment that still allows for slavery when a crime is committed. The actual language is,
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Both Ava DuVernay in her documentary, “13th” and Michelle Alexander in her New York Times bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness prompt us to consider the connections between racial injustice and the business of America. Just as slavery offered a financial foundation for this country, today’s prison-industrial complex — bail bondsmen, court stenographers, bailiffs, lawyers, judges, prison guards, companies that supply food to prisons, prison security tech companies, and the list goes on – demands a steady increase in what is criminalized and the number who are imprisoned in order to support the system. And, while African Americans comprise about 14% of America’s citizenry, Blacks are about 40% of the imprisoned. Again, just think about that.
A 16-year-old was put in prison in Louisiana for 55 years and some people – too many — in a small neighborhood in Washington, DC cheered.