Recently on this blog, there were a number of heated exchanges over the Oscar Grant shooting. Many of the comments reiterated some of the basest stereotypes and misinformation about blacks’ “natural” proclivities for criminal behavior, and bandied about misleading or simply inaccurate statistics as proof. Quite a few posters, and undoubtedly many Americans at large, seem to be of the general opinion that black people are criminally inclined and thus their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system represents their disproportionate predisposition to commit illegal acts.
This disturbing story offers information that should cause people to rethink these knee-jerk assumptions that incarceration = criminality. This news alert describes a case of corrupt judges in Pennsylvania who received kickbacks from for-profit prison companies after sentencing children:
“As many as 5,000 children in Pennsylvania have been found guilty, and up to 2,000 of them jailed, by two corrupt judges who received kickbacks from the builders and owners of private prison facilities that benefited. The two judges pleaded guilty in a stunning case of greed and corruption that is still unfolding. Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan received $2.6 million in kickbacks while imprisoning children who often had no access to a lawyer. The case offers an extraordinary glimpse into the shameful private prison industry that is flourishing in the United States.”
The report asserts that the two judges pleaded guilty to tax evasion and wire fraud, and that they regularly sentenced children on innocuous cases after violating their rights to due process, and ignoring prosecutors’ recommendations for leniency. One story describes a fourteen year old girl who was sentenced to nearly a year for slapping another girl after an argument escalated and the other girl hit her, and another girl discusses being sentenced to three months in a criminal facility after posting a web page that mocked an assistant principal at her school. Predictably, imprisonment has had a profoundly detrimental effect on these children. One states:
“People looked at me different when I came out, thought I was a bad person, because I was gone for so long. My family started splitting up … because I was away and got locked up. I’m still struggling in school, because the schooling system in facilities like these places [are] just horrible.”
She began cutting herself, blaming the medication that she was forced to take:
“I was never depressed, I was never put on meds before. I went there, and they just started putting meds on me, and I didn’t even know what they were. They said if I didn’t take them, I wasn’t following my program.”
She was hospitalized three times. The experience of this child is not an isolated incident. Children who are locked up are at risk for brutal violence at the hands of police, as in this assault of a teenaged girl by sheriff’s deputies in King County, Washington reveals:
The deputy in this case has plead not guilty. The judges who were found guilty of violating the constitutional rights of and illegally sentencing up to 5,000 children for profit, these judges will serve a mere seven years.
While the report on the illegal sentencing case doesn’t mention the racial identity of the two girls who are described above, nor any of the others affected by these judges, the video from King County, Washington reminds us that those involved in the prison system in this country are disproportionately people of color. So it might not be a stretch to question how many of the 5,000 children affected by these judges are black or Latino. This story should at least compel us to rethink naïve assumptions that our criminal justice system is fair, balanced, and impartial, and to consider the implications of this when a disproportionate number of black and brown men are imprisoned. And while we’re at it, we might also consider why this story hasn’t (to my knowledge) received major national news coverage?