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Zero tolerance means jail for minority youth

April 20, 2007 | Page 3

SHARON SMITH reports that a 6-year-old's temper tantrum in school can bring felony charges.

The U.S. is the only United Nations member state except Somalia that has neglected to ratify the UN's 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. In February 2001, George W. Bush explicitly objected to its "human rights-based approach"--which, among other things, prohibits incarcerating children as adults because their minds are too immature to form "criminal intent."

Indeed, the U.S. is home to more than 99 percent of youths serving life sentences without the possibility of parole worldwide. More than 100,000 children are currently incarcerated in local detention and state correctional institutions.

"Zero tolerance" advocates would have us believe our nation is overrun with teenage predators committing an unprecedented number of heinous crimes. But statistics belie this explanation.

The murder conviction rate for youths fell from 2,234 in 1990 to 1,006 in 2000, a drop of almost 55 percent. Yet during that same period, the percentage of children receiving sentences of life without parole more than tripled, from 2.9 to 9 percent.

Over the last decade, scores of children have been handcuffed, arrested, fingerprinted, jailed and convicted of crimes stemming from incidents as trivial as temper tantrums in kindergarten or schoolyard fights--which once would have meant a trip to the principal's office at worst. Now a six-year-old's temper tantrum can bring felony charges.

When kindergartner Desre'e Watson of Avon Park, Fla., threw a tantrum last month, she was arrested and charged with battery on a school official (a felony), disruption of a school function and resisting a law enforcement officer (both misdemeanors).

Watson's arrest is not at all unusual in Florida. Back in December 2000, the St. Petersburg Times reported, "Nowadays, children as young as 6 or 7 are carted off in handcuffs, locked up and saddled with permanent criminal records...More than 4,500 kids 11 and under were charged with crimes in Florida during the fiscal year that ended in June."

The Times continued, "Kids as young as seven spend the night in detention centers. Kids as young as 10 are sent away for a year or more. And in a very few cases, children enter the justice system at even younger ages, such as a 5-year-old St. Petersburg boy charged this year with burglary; and incredibly, a preschool arson suspect who went through a pretrial diversion program in South Florida at age 3."

In December 2001, after arresting a 10-year-old autistic fourth grader for disrupting his special education class, Rick Hord of the Okaloosa, Fla., Sheriff's Department argued, "[T]here's no question but that we had all the elements of a felony crime present."

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AND NOT all children are treated equally: race and class loom large. As the Times noted, "There is a stark difference among arrests of children by race--one that gets sharper as the children get younger."

The young targets of "zero tolerance" arrests nationwide are overwhelmingly Black, Latino and Native American.

In 2000, according to the Suffolk University Law School Juvenile Justice Center (JJC), African-American children--who made up just 15 percent of the U.S. child population--were 46 percent of those incarcerated and 52 percent of those whose cases ended up in adult criminal court. Black children are imprisoned at five times the rate of whites, while Latino and Native American children are placed in correctional institutions at two-and-a-half times that of whites.

Fifteen-year-old Shaquanda Cotton was released from a Texas prison on March 31 after serving one year of a possible seven-year sentence for shoving a teacher's aide at her school. Cotton claimed the aide shoved her first, after she attempted to enter the school early to receive a prescription drug for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder from the school nurse.

Three months before Cotton's conviction, a 14-year-old white girl was sentenced to probation for arson after burning down her family home.

Such racial disparities are not limited to Southern states. The JJC reported in 2003, "As juvenile crime in Massachusetts has decreased eight years in a row, the rate at which judges are ordering detention of youth increased by 40 percent...[T]he proportion of minority youth in total detention admissions has increased annually from 2001, for both boys (from 57 percent to 60 percent in 2003) and girls (from 49 percent to 54 percent)."

In April 2005, 11-year-old Maribel Cuevas returned a rock that a group of boys threw at her outside her Fresno, California home, hitting 8-year-old Elijah Vang in the forehead.

Although Vang's parents pressed no charges, police arrested Cuevas and charged her with felony assault--holding her for five days before she was released on the condition that she wear an electronic ankle bracelet to monitor her location around the clock.

"If this was a middle-class or upper-class neighborhood, it would have been a very different outcome," Rev. Floyd Harris Jr. told reporters after leading a 100-person vigil to support Maribel. "Police don't have the same respect for people of color in this town," he added.

Martin Cuevas, Maribel's father, commented, "She will never have trust in the police after what they did to her."

With good reason.

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