Book Review

Criminalizing Black Children

Black children are disproportionately tried as adults when they commit crimes.
Deeply internalized racism is to blame.

By Terrell Jermaine Starr

There was clear evidence that a family member had been sexually abusing 13-year-old Catherine Jones and her 12-year-old brother, Curtis, for years. But no one helped them, and the two children were left to figure it out themselves. In 1999, Catherine and Curtis plotted to kill the abuser, as well as their father and his girlfriend, Nicole Speights, because the kids had come to believe the two were responsible for allowing the abuse to continue, according to USA Today. Curtis shot Speights with his father’s handgun. Then the kids panicked, tried to cover up the killing, and ran off.

It was a tragic incident that should have been handled by mental health professionals, not a criminal court. But instead of being treated as victims of sexual abuse, a Florida prosecutor charged the children with first-degree murder. The two became the youngest children in U.S. history to be charged as adults. They ended up pleading guilty to second-degree murder and were sentenced to 18 years in prison and probation for life to avoid life sentences. 

Catherine Jones may be released a few years ahead of schedule this summer because of good behavior, but she will have spent a good portion of her young life in prison. She missed thumbing out a tweet, mulling a date for her high school prom, enjoying the butterflies of having a teenage crush, and doing the other things teenagers do.

The family member who sexually abused Catherine robbed her of her innocence, and the state of Florida robbed her of her youth. Officials from the Department of Children and Families failed them after multiple investigations found proof the children were being sexually abused; yet the department did nothing. When their defense attorney argued all of these points in a plea for leniency, the prosecutors didn’t see two scared, isolated kids who were being victimized; they saw cold-blooded killers. 

Such is the life of a Black child in America’s criminal justice system. 

Of the 2,500 kids serving life without parole for crimes committed under the age of 18 in America, 60 percent of them are Black. Florida, Curtis and Catherine Jones’ home state, leads the nation in charging children as adults. It has a “direct file” statute that allows prosecutors to transfer juvenile cases straight to criminal courts without input from a judge. More than 50 percent of children transferred are Black; 24 percent are white.

A 2014 study titled, “The Essence of Innocence: The Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” might explain what’s behind the impulse to push young Black offenders into adulthood. According to the study, white people consistently view Black children as less innocent than white children.

Here is a breakdown of the study, according to the American Psychological Association: 

“The study also involved 264 mostly white, female undergraduate students from large public U.S. universities. In one experiment, students rated the innocence of people ranging from infants to 25-year-olds who were Black, white or an unidentified race. The students judged children up to nine-years-old as equally innocent regardless of race, but considered Black children significantly less innocent than other children in every age group beginning at age ten, the researchers found. 

“The students were also shown photographs alongside descriptions of various crimes and asked to assess the age and innocence of white, Black or Latino boys ages ten to 17. The students overestimated the age of Blacks by an average of 4.5 years and found them more culpable than whites or Latinos, particularly when the boys were matched with serious crimes, the study found. Researchers used questionnaires to assess the participants’ prejudice and dehumanization of Blacks. They found that participants who implicitly associated Blacks with apes thought the Black children were older and less innocent.”

“‘Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,’ Phillip Atiba Goff, the author of the study wrote. ‘Our research found that Black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.’”

There’s a harsher reality behind Goff’s comments; in American society, Black children aren’t seen as children to begin with. No conversation about criminal justice reform can be had without an honest inspection of white people’s internalized racism. A recent Stanford University study conducted by researchers Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt found that when white people are aware of the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans, they actually support harsher penalties that perpetuate inequity. 

The Stanford News Service reported on the results of the study:

Their first experiment unfolded at a train station near San Francisco. A white female researcher asked 62 white voters to watch a video containing mug shots of male inmates. Some of the participants saw a video in which 25 percent of the mug shots were of Black men, while others saw a video in which the percentage of Black men among the mug shots rose to 45 percent.

The participants then had an opportunity to sign a real petition aimed at easing the severity of California’s three-strikes law. “It seemed like a great opportunity—a real-life political issue—to test this question of whether Blacker prison populations lead people to accept these more punitive policies,” Eberhardt said.

The results were clear. Over half of the participants who’d seen the mug shots with fewer Black men signed the petition, whereas only 27 percent of people who viewed the mug shots containing a higher percentage of Black inmates agreed to sign. This was the case regardless of how harsh participants thought the law was.

“Many legal advocates and social activists seem to assume that bombarding the public with images, statistics and other evidence of racial disparities will motivate people to join the cause and fight inequality,” Rebecca Hetey, co-author of the study, said. “But we found that, ironically, exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.”

If you’re shocked by Hetey’s comment, you shouldn’t be. An NBC News/Marist College poll released in December found that 52 percent of white people have a “great deal” of confidence that police are treating Black people in their communities fairly.

The reason for this is simple: white people trust the cops. They believe that if police are arresting all of these Black people who end up in prison, there must be a justifiable reason for that. One has to wonder if the men and women prosecuting these cases share such thinking.

The good news is that some positive changes have been made in how juveniles are sentenced during Catherine Jones’ incarceration.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty could not be applied to defendants under the age of 18. In 2012, the Court ruled that juveniles couldn’t be sentenced to life in prison for murder convictions.

“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the 2012 decision. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”

Catherine was robbed of this consideration back in 1999. Being a Black child, her humanity was ignored, because the criminal justice system didn’t see her as a little girl to begin with.

Changing juvenile laws so that children in Catherine’s situation aren’t treated as adults is a great start. True reform, however, will come only when we put an end to the racist thinking that labels kids criminals in the first place. 

AlterNet, January 19, 2015