Thursday, September 27, 2007

Juvenile Court is No Bargain for Mychal Bell(s)
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

A beaming Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III effusively praised Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco for arm twisting La Salle Parish Prosecutor Reed Walters not to challenge an appellate court’s decision overturning the adult court conviction of Jena 6 centerpiece defendant Mychal Bell. But there is really no need for Walters to waste time and money waging a long drawn out time consuming legal war to toss the appellate court ruling on Bell.

If Walters chooses to retry Bell in juvenile court, and given his dogged and hardball pursuit of Bell, there is a good likelihood that he will retry; he still holds a full deck of legal cards. Juvenile courts are and have never been any bargain for a Mychal Bell, and the countless other Mychal Bells nationally that face major felony cases. It’s a broken, flawed, repressive system that emphasizes punishment, and not rehabilitation for teens. Louisiana’s juvenile justice system that Bell will be dumped back into is a textbook example of the towering failures of the system.

Three years before the Sharpton-Blanco meeting on Bell, Blanco sternly vowed to do everything in her power to overhaul Louisiana’s badly broken juvenile justice system. It was long past time for that call. Juvenile courts and facilities in the state are grossly under-funded and understaffed; the teens are warehoused in crowded, cramped, and aging facilities. They have few opportunities to obtain job and skills training, mentoring and counseling and family support programs that could help them stay out of legal harm’s way.

Numerous reports on the workings of the juvenile justice system in other states have also found that the system is often a dumping ground for youth that the society has thrown in the towel on. They are children with mental health problems, minor school-related misconduct and other adolescent problems.

Then there are the courts. The youthful offenders in many cases have shoddy or non-existent legal representation, few appeal rights, and there is no bail. Juvenile offenders are considered child wards of the court, and the judge has the discretion to release them to their parents or keep them locked down indefinitely. Louisiana is hardly an aberration to this sorry pattern.

An American Bar Association study in 2003 found that when Ohio children were arrested or cited on a charge, the offenders waived their right to counsel without an explanation of what rights they were giving up and how waiving those rights could harm them in the future. In some courts, the defense attorneys did not play a significant enough role, the study found. Vigorous representation for children also varied county to county, but investigators found meaningful representation lacking at the arrest or detention hearing stage, little pretrial or trial advocacy, and limited or nonexistent appeals in many jurisdictions.

Studies also have found that many U.S. children age 15 and younger are unable to understand criminal proceedings, hindering their ability to be competent defendants. Bell’s troubles started at about that age. He was remanded to juvenile courts for the four offenses he was charged with before his conviction for beating white teen Justin Barker.

Bell backers railed that his trial in adult court was a farce. His public defender never requested a change of venue, never challenged the all-white jury selection, presented no evidence, and didn't call a single defense witness. But if he had been tried in juvenile court, the likelihood is the outcome would have been exactly the same, or worse. He could have been detained without bail if he was considered a threat to the community. Walters and Judge J.P. Mauffray have repeatedly called Bell a threat. That was a prime reason Mauffray revoked his bail.

The judge has the sole power to make that decision. In La Salle Parish Mauffray wears the dual hat of both a juvenile court as well as a district judge. Bell would have been assigned a public defender, tried by an adult judge (possibly even Mauffray), and if convicted by the adult judge on the serious felony charge of aggravated battery with his prior juvenile offenses could have been ordered held until he’s age 21, in a prison-like juvenile facility. Or he could be shipped off to an adult prison to serve his sentence. Nationally, black and Latino youth make up the majority of those youthful offenders that are convicted in juvenile courts and ordered to serve their sentences in adult prisons.

The towering flaws and abuses that wrack the juvenile court and justice system in Louisiana are no different than those that plague the system in other states. It’s a system that desperately screams for reform. Louisiana governor Blanco knew that reform is desperately needed even as she met with Sharpton on Bell. But those screams have mostly fallen on the tone deaf ears of a public and state legislators determined to be as tough on youthful offenders as adults. Bell and the nation will discover that harsh truth if he’s dumped back in a juvenile court docket.

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.