Paul D’Amato Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Paul D’Amato

The color of justice

(June 2000)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 12, June–July 2000..
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

And Justice for Some, a new study from by Eileen Poe-Yamagata and Michael A. Jones, senior researchers with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency [1], reveals the strong racial bias in the way the criminal justice system treats Black and Latino youth. The report – sponsored by the Justice Department and several leading foundations – confirms what has long been known by ordinary Black, Hispanic and Native American people in this country: that minorities are more likely to be arrested, detained, prosecuted, tried, sentenced as adults (if juveniles), and imprisoned (and imprisoned longer) than their white counterparts.

The report comes at a time when youth have been demonized as ‘superpredators’ for several years in the U.S. – in spite of the fact that violent crime among youth has actually declined over the last several years. Between 1992 and 1997, 47 states passed laws that ‘either made it easier to transfer youth from the juvenile justice system to the criminal justice system, that gave criminal and juvenile courts expanded sentencing options, or modified or removed traditional juvenile court confidentiality provisions.’ According to the study, ‘minority youth are more likely than white youth to become involved in the [criminal or juvenile justice] system with their overrepresentation increasing at each stage of the process.’

The study also found that:

A chart at the end of the study sums up the grim picture: African American youth are 15 percent of the youth population. However, they are 26 percent of those arrested, 31 percent of those referred to juvenile court, 44 percent of those detained, 46 percent of those waived to criminal (adult) court, and 58 percent of those sent to state prison. The study concludes:

While ‘Equal Justice Under the Law’ is the foundation of our legal system, and is carved in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, the juvenile justice system is anything but equal ... Throughout the system, minority youth – especially African American youth – receive different and harsher treatment. This is true even when white youth and minority youth are charged with similar offenses. This report documents a juvenile justice system that is ‘separate but unequal.’

The Myth of the Superpredator

The myth of the youth ‘superpredator’ was developed by right wing academics in the early 1990s, and quickly became mainstream fashion. The press has run with it, putting out stories of irredeemably depraved violent youth running rampant in our schools and streets. A January 1996 Time magazine article entitled Now for the Bad News; A Teenage Time Bomb cautioned its readers, ‘They are just four, five and six years old now, but already they are making criminologists nervous.’

This press hysteria has no correlation to fact. According to FBI crime reports, crime is negatively correlated to the number of men aged 15–24 in the population. That is, crime goes down as the number of young people increases, and vice-versa. In fact, 57 percent of all violent crime is committed by people aged 25 and older, and people over 18 commit 80 percent of all violent crime.

The superpredator hysteria provides the backdrop to the introduction of tougher legislation that allows states to try juveniles as adults, sentence them to adult prisons and, yes, even execute them. The Juvenile Crime Control Act of 1997 lowered the age at which children can be tried as adults in federal courts to 13. The bill passed the House. Clinton opposed the bill, not because it allowed teenagers to be prosecuted as adults, but on the grounds that it ‘fails to provide a comprehensive plan to crack down on youth and gang violence.’ Last year, the Senate passed the ‘Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999’ – a bill introduced by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch – into law by a vote of 73–25. The law allows 14-year-olds – eighth graders – to be tried as adults for serious violent or drug-related felonies.

Forty states have changed their juvenile codes in order to impose mandatory minimum sentencing, try minors as adults, and strip confidentiality protections that had been conferred on minors for more than a century. Yet the youth murder rate (14–17 year-olds) peaked in the early 1990s, and has declined from 30 per hundred in 1993 to 16 per 100 in 1997. [2]

California recently passed Proposition 21, the ‘Gang Violence and Youth Crime Prevention Act,’ supported vigorously by Democratic Governor Gray Davis. The law permits youth offenders to be charged as adults, and imposes longer (sometimes mandatory) sentences. Membership in a gang, for example, is punishable by a six-month mandatory prison term. A recent Leadership Conference on Civil Rights study, Justice on Trial, notes that ‘California taxpayers have voted to spend an additional $1 billion for prison construction at a moment when youth violence is declining throughout the state.’

The impact of sending youth to adult prisons is to dehumanize and degrade them. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, youth incarcerated with adults are more likely to commit crimes again, five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be beaten by prison staff and 50 times more likely to be attacked by a weapon than youth held in juvenile facilities. But from reading the New York Times, you might think it’s the other way around. In 1997, the Times printed New Mexico Secretary of Public Safety Darren White’s claim that ‘when some of these kids are convicted as adults and put into our adult prison, they intimidate the older prisoners.’ [3]

Youth crime – in particular, crimes related to a mix of frustration, drugs and guns – is a reality in America. But the violence among poor and working class youth is a response to their bleak social environment and their lack of economic prospects. The ‘solution’ on offer by politicians is to demonize them – especially Black and Latino youth – in order to tag them as superpredators, try them as adults and send them to prison where they are brutalized, beaten and dehumanized. Victim and predator are turned inside out. In America today, it is the economic system, the police and the judicial system which prey on poor youth, who are victims of a society that demeans and degrades them. In the words of Bill Ayers, author of A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court: ‘The kids I talked to and met with would say quite articulately, “I can get a gun in an hour. I can get a little packet of crack anytime. What I can’t get is a bookstore, a school where I can take books home. I can’t get a job.”’

* * *


1. Eileen Poe-Yamagata and Michael A. Jones, And Justice for Some, National Council on Crime and Delinquency, <>.

2. Jessica Portner, Author says fear of youth crime outstrips the Facts, Teacher Magazine, March 3, 1999.

3. Quoted in Superscapegoating: Teen ‘superpredators’ hype sets stage for draconian legislation, EXTRA!, January/February 1998.

* * *


Too Little Justice

Below are excerpts from a new study, Justice on Trial, released in May 2000 by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund.

On racial profiling

On drugs and incarceration

A lost generation

The United States has the second highest incarceration rate in the world, behind only Russia. Two million people are housed in American prisons. Although they comprise less than a quarter of the U.S. population, Black and Hispanic Americans make up approximately two-thirds of the total U.S. prison population. The percentage of prisoners who are Black is four times that of the percentage of Blacks in the U.S. population. [T]he percentage of prisoners who are Hispanic is almost twice that of the percentage of Hispanics in the U.S. population. In order to grasp the enormity of these facts, consider that:

Paul D’Amato Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 29 October 2021