Jim Crow returns in juvenile justice bill

May 28, 1999|By Charles Levendosky

ONCE AGAIN the Senate has passed a deeply flawed juvenile crime bill.

Last year, the Senate wanted to allow juveniles to be jailed in the same facility with adults, despite the horrors that arose from such a practice.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, pleaded for that one and pushed the current racist juvenile crime bill through the Senate. It was passed a week ago, 73-25, with two senators abstaining.

The troubling part of this juvenile crime bill is that it eliminates the requirement forcing states to address the disproportionate confinement of black and Hispanic juveniles. In 1988, Congress amended the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 to include a mandate for states to study and attempt to correct this problem. Forty-six states have completed their studies and identified the problem in their law enforcement systems. Forty states are developing plans to address it.

The federal mandate does not require arrest quotas or that any minority juvenile be released from jail. But it does require states to look at the problem. The Hatch-Sessions bill totally discards that federal mandate.

In California, for instance, minority youths consistently received more severe punishments and were more likely to receive jail time than white youths -- for the same offense.

Baltimore figures

National figures show that approximately the same percentage of white juveniles use drugs as black juveniles. Yet a study done by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives showed the marked racial disparity in waging the drug war in Baltimore. In 1980, 18 white juveniles were arrested in Baltimore and charged with drug sales compared with 86 black juveniles arrested for the same crime. By 1990, the disparity leaped enormously. Only 13 white juveniles were arrested for selling drugs, but 1,304 black youths were arrested for the same crime.

That's what is meant by disproportionate minority confinement. It's a national problem. It's real and it's based upon racial fears. Racism has been a growing specter in the juvenile justice system since the turn of the century. The federal mandate is a step to dealing with the problem.

One should note that Senate doesn't have any black members.

The only member of a minority is American Indian, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican, who voted against the Senate bill.

But Mr. Hatch doesn't believe the disproportionate arrest rates for minority juveniles is due to racism. He stated on the Senate floor that those are the kids who are selling drugs to "our" children and they should be convicted. "Our" obviously means "white" in Mr. Hatch's prejudiced parlance.

Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat, hit the heart of the problem in his response to Mr. Hatch: "This is all about race. I cannot believe that I have heard on the floor of the Senate an argument that race is not the critical consideration.

"When the police decide which kids are searched, you don't think that has anything to do with race? When we get to the question of which kids are arrested, you don't think that has anything to do with race? . . . You are sleepwalking through history."

School shootings

The irony of this sad debate is that this juvenile crime bill is loaded with anti-gun provisions and congressional hysteria because of the recent school shootings perpetrated, by the way, by white juveniles.

The congressional hysteria shows in the senators' cry of a rising juvenile crime wave. Not so. Mr. Hatch and Mr. Sessions used 1994 as the reference year for the presumption that juvenile crime is on the rise, but neglected the latest data from 1995 through 1997, showing that juvenile crime has dropped dramatically.

A letter dated May 10 to the Senate signed by 36 prominent criminologists and crime policy experts pointed out the senators' error: "The Justice Department's "Crime in the United States" reported last November that the juvenile homicide arrest rate had dropped again for the fourth straight year -- by more than 45 percent since 1993 . . .

"Today, the percentage of violent crime arrests attributed to juveniles is lower than it was in 1975."

When the Senate version of the juvenile crime bill reaches conference committee, the Congressional Black Caucus will play a pivotal role in demanding that the mandate remain in the final bill. The caucus sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, pointing out that an overwhelming majority of House members endorsed the retention of the mandate in the House juvenile justice bill.

Mr. Hatch and Mr. Sessions ignore the clear evidence of the widespread disparity in the treatment of minority juveniles in this nation's law enforcement system. If the Hatch-Session's bill becomes law without the mandate, it will by that omission create a Jim Crow justice system for minority children. Not a step forward, but a long step backward.

Charles Levendosky, editorial page editor of the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, has a national reputation for First Amendment commentary. His e-mail address is levendos@trib.com.

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