'Jena 6' case raises questions of bias in U.S. justice
Marchers for the 'Jena 6' cite unequal treatment of blacks. Others say poverty plays as much of a role in any inequity.
Witnesses described the schoolyard fight in rural Jena, La., as short but violent, as six black teens beat a white classmate unconscious. Instead of being expelled, five of the six young men – who've become known as the "Jena 6" – were charged with attempted murder.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Although those charges were later reduced for all but one defendant, thousands of protesters flocked to the small town Thursday to march and call attention to what they say is a biased justice system that treats minorities more harshly than it does whites.
There's evidence to back them up. Despite a narrowing of the racial gap in the past decade, the average black juvenile remains far more likely to be arrested and convicted than his white counterpart. But researchers are divided on whether race or other factors, such as poverty, are the driving factor.
With the case inspiring smaller protests elsewhere in the nation, it has become a cause célèbre for everyone from college students to Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton, who have all weighed in on behalf of the black men.
The issue of biased justice, especially for young African-Americans, has been a longstanding complaint in the African-American community. And while disparities are less blatant than they were in the era of civil rights marches, they can still touch off mass protest, as Thursday's march showed.
The level of bias in the system is a another matter, however.
"Do we have a criminal justice system that mistreats people on the basis of race? No," says Kenneth Nunn, a University of Florida law professor who specializes in issues of race in the courts. "The principle is not the issue, but the practical application [of law] is where you see the problems."
Nationally, black youths are significantly more likely to be tried as adults than are white youths, according to a January report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. The same report states that while black youths make up 16 percent of the general adolescent population, they make up 38 percent of the approximately 100,000 youths being held in local and state detention facilities.
The irony, some say, is that mass outpouring of support in cases like the Jena 6 may, in fact, obscure the real issues, where many criminal-defense lawyers can point to examples of prosecutorial zeal when dealing with black defendants.
"The public at large basically thinks that these cases are aberrations, and that's one reason why so much attention is paid to them," says Professor Nunn. "It's the idea that it's the redneck sheriff doing this and not the way we sort of stack the odds against black criminal defendants. We can point to a few bad apples, say, 'See, it's them,' and the rest of us feel great because we're demonstrating how we disagree with racism."
There has been some improvement for black juveniles. In the late 1980s, they were six times more likely to be arrested for a violent crime than whites were, according to a report last year by the US Justice Department. By 2003, they were four times as likely as whites.
While researchers agree that racial bias remains, other factors, such as poverty, also play a role, they say. In one study, sociology professor Robert Sampson said that "social forces that concentrate race with poverty" dictate judicial outcomes more than inherent prejudices by police and prosecutors.