Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Cautionary Tale in Mychal Bell’s Jail Plight

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Huey Crockett has a much different view of Jena 6 defendant Mychal Bell than the thousands of protestors that stormed Jena to demand his freedom. Months before Bell became a cause celebre, Crockett said he called the police to report that Bell and some other youths were vandalizing cars in his mostly black neighborhood outside Jena. Crockett bitterly charged that police moved with glacial speed to come out and investigate. Crockett chalked police lethargy and indifference to it being just another case of blacks committing criminal acts against other blacks. If Bell and his pals had been vandalizing cars in white neighborhoods the police would have been all over it, said Crockett.

The double standard that outraged Crockett in the glaring difference in how police handle black on black crime and black on white crime was probably the single biggest thing that infuriated the tens of thousands that flooded Jena’s streets. Studies repeatedly show that black teens such as Bell are far more likely than white teens to be arrested, tried, and convicted in adult courts, given harsher sentences and are more likely than white teens to serve their sentences in adult prisons.
But this tormenting double standard doesn’t totally explain why Bell languished in jail since December. Nor does it tell why even after civil rights leaders and activists belatedly raised his bond money when the case jumped into the national spotlight, that the judge promptly revoked his bail. The judge had the perfect legal hook to keep Bell in jail. It had little to do with his conviction for the beating of a white student, and much to do with Bell’s prior offenses. In this case there were three of them that included a battery charge, and a charge of criminal damage to property. The battery charge landed Bell on probation until January 2008.

Prosecutors and courts have wide latitude to hold a juvenile offender with high bail or no bail that they deem a threat to the community. In Louisiana bail is permitted after a conviction and the maximum sentence is more than five years. But, as in other states, prosecutors can request and the courts can deny bail if they believe the offender is a threat to the community. Jena prosecutors quickly slapped that tag on Bell. However, this would not have flown if there were no prior charges.
That’s a powerful cautionary tale of how and why legions of black teens such as Bell stay in jail much longer than white teens even when they are charged with the same or similar felony counts. Though juvenile crime rates have plunged in the past decade, and the crime plunge has been steepest among black teens, media sensationalism on gangs, drugs, and drive-by shootings, as well as the far harsher treatment of black juveniles in the courts reinforce public fears that black teens commit more crimes and especially more violent crimes than whites.

When a teen has a prior record this further reinforces the notion that young blacks are habitual offenders, and they become instant cannon fodder for a legal system that is harsh and unsparing toward them. It’s biased, and unfair, but it gave the Jena prosecutor the right to say with a straight face that the Jena case is not about race and that Bell’s continued jailing has nothing to do with beating a white kid. Though thousands fumed at the court’s hard ball play toward Bell, his record gave the judge the legal cover to get away with revoking his bail.

The warning signs that some black teens repeatedly put themselves in legal harm’s way glare like neon. They are heeded only the rare times that a case explodes into the national arena. Then the anger, finger pointing and hand wringing over what went wrong begin. In Bell’s case, his father and local ministers publicly pledged to put him on a crash program of mentoring, counseling and tougher fatherly supervision when he’s released. The idea is to do everything they can to get him back on the straight path.

Bell’s prior record, and the much needed intervention by his parents and community leaders doesn’t absolve the prosecutors and courts of the gross overkill on the charges against the him or even revoking his bail. He’s still a teen and the presumption is that teens can turn things around if given a fair chance at rehabilitation. And, it certainly doesn’t wipe away the double standard that deeply taints the juvenile criminal justice system that hammers Bell and other black teens even when they have no prior records.

Still, it is another tragic warning that there’s little margin for error in the criminal justice system for black teens. Once Bell is freed, and eventually he will be, the trick is to make sure that he and the countless others that do not have a cast of thousands shouting to free them but face a similar legal plight, stay free.

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.