Jena Six Case Shows Black Teens Get Short End of Stick

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Sep 16, 2007

Editors note: When a Louisiana judge locked up six black teens in the Jena case an investigative team cried foul. On Sept. 14, an appeals court vacated the remaining conviction for second degree battery against one of the accused, saying the charges should have been brought in juvenile court. NAM editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson examines the way the justice system is weighted against blacks.

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 states juvenile justice system was horribly mangled.

It found that the state couldnt lock up juveniles fast enough for mostly non-violent crimes. The team noted that the sentences slapped on them 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 that they didnt wind up back in the slammer.

Though alternative sentencing programs are far more cost effective than jailing, they are scarce and under-funded, 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 a squeaky clean record. 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 youth. But thats 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 havent 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.

They are convinced that teen violence has spawned a new class of youthful "super predators" and that the juvenile justice system is far too easy on them.

The notion that juveniles are running wild though is a myth.

According to recent FBI crime figures, the rates for murder and assault among teenagers have plummeted since 1993, even among black teens.

Yet politicians have overreacted badly to the public panic. In the past decade, more than 30 states have loosened, if not eliminated, laws requiring juveniles be tried and sentenced in juvenile courts.

The criminal justice system's harsh treatment of young blacks, like the Jena teens, fuels the suspicion of many blacks that judges, prosecutors and probation officers bend way over backwards to give young white offenders the benefit of the doubt and are far less willing to label and treat them as dangerous habitual offenders, even when they commit violent crimes.

One study of the attitudes of probation officers toward black and white teen offenders found that they were far more likely to attribute black juvenile crimes to such family or character flaws as chronic disrespect toward authority and to brand them as inherent troublemakers.

They were more likely to blame white bad behavior on conditions outside their control such as hanging out with the wrong crowd, or to troubling family conflicts. Judges and prosecutors read the probation reports and heed their recommendations and if they are favorable, as they are more often than not with young whites, judges are much more inclined to approve alternative sentencing or treatment programs for them. An unfavorable report is just as likely to result in hard time in juvenile or adult jails.

The outrage over the Jena case will probably force town prosecutors to edge away a little more from the harsh charges against the teens, but only a little. They, like prosecutors everywhere, are convinced that black teens are habitual lawbreakers and that the public clamors for them to heave the book at them. And thats exactly what they routinely do in daily courts throughout the country.

Its business as usual for black teen offenders and Jena wont change that. And thats an even bigger tragedy.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

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User Comments

Moe Fukee on Oct 11, 2007 at 10:55:31 said:

"Colored People"?

Comparing this to Manson, McVeigh, The Unibomber?

Proof that white racism is alive and ignorant.
Get an education prople.

mercedes brown on Oct 04, 2007 at 06:56:54 said:

I am a 14 years old i myself feel the jena six case is a travesty of justice to the african american race and beyond.

James Ross on Sep 28, 2007 at 07:16:36 said:

That judge hate black people because the white boy had to do something bad that noone is telling someone else about. The black boys should have only got suspended from school and that should have been the end to it. Now that all this mess happened Bush need to step up and start being our president

Jason on Sep 27, 2007 at 10:39:41 said:

Yes, this was racially motivated, and as much as I'd like to say the white boy had it coming, the black students committed a felony, what is this, aggrivated assault? That ranges from a punch in the face to being beat with a barbed wire baseball bat to within an inch of your life. I just think its good it wasn't attempted murder in the 2nd degree.

Billie Jean on Sep 23, 2007 at 19:17:05 said:

I am actually amazed to see black people speaking common sense and saying that the Jena 6 deserve punishment! I hope you colored folk spread your common sense to the rest of your community. Until then, I am afraid us white folks will have to segregate ourselves from you. I am sure you understand.

ray coon on Sep 23, 2007 at 11:49:55 said:

Why would us white folks put our white children in prison, when there are plenty of black children to put in prison, and keep all of those police academy drop outs employed, the lawyers, judges, tax collectors, blah blah blah, it's big business keeping blacks in prison and that is just the facts of life. Face it, if the prisons were empty a whole lot of white folk would be out of jobs, and we surely can't have that.

joe pavan on Sep 22, 2007 at 10:03:49 said:


You are one of the people that I speak of.

Brother. You just have to let it go.

It is not like that all over the place. There are a few case such as this where they may get a few more years for TRYING TO KILL A MAN, but THEY DID TRY TO KILL A MAN! What extra should they get?

You are one of those people that unfortunatly eat chocolate, but won't eat white chocolate.

Man is human no matter the color or substance.

Joe Pavan

joe pavan on Sep 22, 2007 at 09:56:13 said:

I am starting to understand reading your comments that they are a culprit of what I am trying to say.

We have to be accountable and look in the mirror. Not just to see color , but to see how we are just passing things on to the next generation.

It is like the Michael Vick incident. The NAACP butts in. Oh ok , but we think you white folk should give him his job back when he gets out of the joint.

HUH The man should be held to the standards of anyone else. I don't see any Nation White Associations saying free Manson, Free the Unibomber. Why did they put a needle in Mcveighs arm. I do believe it is justice. Now if a person of color does wrong we have our sef racial tesion.
This crap has got to stop. I am embarrased being black with all the glory they give these rappers or gangstas, pro athletes and so on. It is a double edged sword. Like I said, look in the mirror. We have become a disgrace in many ways and it seems like we always blame the whites right back to the 400 years of opression deal. Oh those whites are dead and buried and I believe 99.9% of the whites are good people and try their best to help blacks out as much as they can , but there are too many bad apples among the blacks. The way we are even going about this and some of the English used on these forums. It is a no wonder why some call it Ebonics.

Look in the mirror

Thank you,

Joe Pavan

joe pavan on Sep 22, 2007 at 09:50:03 said:

Racial tension???

What is racial tension anyway. Does it have eyes? Does it have a color in the first place?

My point here is that I am of color and I can see the judge went a little overboard, but the facts are that the kids did wrong and should be punished. I am sorry hearing about race it should be a moot issue in the world , but the other so called big shot people of color such as Opera, Jessie and Al to name a few always seem to find something like this and take the side of color every last time. It doesnt seem to matter the crime. They jump on that bandwagon and ride it just to get an ego trip or until the wheels fall off.

Now did the white boys do any better? Well those nooses aren't the law of the land anymore, but we are in a cival society and they got punished. Now on the other case. These young men went vigalanty on this white young man and beat the hell out of him. Should these guys get the death penalty? Well no, but they shouldn't get a smack on the wrist either.

Racial tension in itself is a 2 sided sword. It got OJ a set of keys Just so a few lawers could get a moment in the sun and Johnny did.

It is like in the 70's "that niggers crazy" " There were more niggers in there then a Tarzan movie". These were said by 2 great comics of color back then and all they got were laughs as it was in good taste. It is when you take color and make it racial tension that you have a problem. The word nigger is word for hard worker. It has only been made a slurr by blacks in this blackman's opinion. Have you ever heard of a song called Woman is the Nigger of the World? I dont think the auther had anyone of color intended in mind when he made the song. It is about a hard working force. The woman. I hope you understand my point,

Thank you,


Reggie on Sep 21, 2007 at 22:00:31 said:

The question that should be asked is, Are u all blind? Wake the F up!!! Of course this a racial matter. It seems to me that it is always easier for whites (and some blacks,for that matter) to automatically assume that any and every pre concieved negative idea thats floating around in the American Majority psychi is true. But remember that golden age adage " Dont let one bad apple ruin the bunch"? Obviously that died in the sixties.Maybe, just maybe this isnt one of those pre concieved notions. Nobody's playing victim here. These are children being railroaded by a system that is racially bais! Plain and simple, cut and dry! Children are going to fight, its inevidable, thats how u earn ur right to be called a man. Im not saying that they should go unpunished, all of them need to be punished for fighting in the first place over something so trivial BLACK and WHITE. Maybe something like probation. Thats accountability. But double digit jail terms just for the blacks before they even get to taste what being an adult really feels like? How can u not see the hate crime in that?

Selina on Sep 21, 2007 at 20:06:39 said:

Roy/Larry - the case was about injustice not racism, duh. Instead of worrying about what we teach our kids, somebody needs to teach you both about what's really going on. Are you all really that ignorant or are you just "playing" ignorant.

Selina on Sep 21, 2007 at 19:56:42 said:

Roy/Larry - the case was about injustice not racism, duh. Instead of worrying about what we teach our kids, somebody needs to teach you both about what's really going on. Are you all really that ignorant or are you just "playing" ignorant.

larry on Sep 20, 2007 at 21:00:18 said:

The most racist thing i see about this is wanting to make the boys that beat the other one up out to be victims. I agree with Roy.

Roy on Sep 20, 2007 at 14:02:52 said:

So six black teens committee a hate crime and do not serve time in federal prison. Sounds like they got off pretty easy to me. When is the black community going to stop teaching there kids to play the victim and teach some personal accountability.




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