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Four years ago today Trayvon Martin was tragically shot. The Marshall Project commemorates him by curating some of the best reporting surrounding his death, including incisive commentary in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In “Fear of a Black President” Coates writes on racial exceptionalism and the polarizing effect of President Obama weighing-in:
“Before President Obama spoke, the death of Trayvon Martin was generally regarded as a national tragedy. After Obama spoke, Martin became material for an Internet vendor flogging paper gun-range targets that mimicked his hoodie and his bag of Skittles. (The vendor sold out within a week.) Before the president spoke, George Zimmerman was arguably the most reviled man in America. After the president spoke, Zimmerman became the patron saint of those who believe that an apt history of racism begins with Tawana Brawley and ends with the Duke lacrosse team.
The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.”
In case you missed it, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report on February 17th, More Harm Than Good: How Children are Unjustly Tried in New Orleans on the misuse of prosecutorial waiver in Orleans Parish. The report makes specific recommendations to the NOLA district attorney’s office for how waiver of jurisdiction should be handled and criteria to be considered in the process. These guidelines could be heeded nationwide.
“The Orleans Parish district attorney is prosecuting children as adults in unprecedented numbers. Although nothing in the law requires Louisiana prosecutors to charge children as adults, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro chooses to transfer children to adult court in almost every possible instance. He transfers children who have no prior delinquency record or played a minor role in the alleged crime. He transfers children who have a mental illness or developmental disability. He even transfers children accused of nonviolent offenses. Some of the children he transfers are found innocent of any crime – but only after enduring the stress and danger of the adult system.
Prosecuting children as adults is, in fact, Cannizzaro’s default practice. Between 2011 and 2015, his office has transferred more than 80 percent of cases involving 15- and 16-year-olds charged with certain offenses where there was an option to prosecute in either juvenile or adult court. Under state law, a judge has no say in these decisions. Discretion rests solely with each parish’s district attorney.
Cannizzaro has sent 200 children to adult court since assuming office in 2009, but it has not made us safer. Arrests for offenses eligible for transfer to adult court are up. Recent data also show that teenagers prosecuted in Louisiana’s juvenile justice system are less likely to reoffend than those prosecuted in the adult system. The district attorney’s practice is wrong for New Orleans’ children, their families and the community. It does more harm than good.”
“The district attorney’s office should always consider:
- The age, mental and physical maturity, and sophistication of the child.
- The nature and seriousness of the alleged offense to the community and whether the protection of the community requires transfer.
- The child’s prior acts of delinquency, if any, and their nature and seriousness.
- Past efforts at rehabilitation and treatment, if any, and the child’s response.
- Whether the child’s behavior might be related to physical or mental problems.
- Techniques, programs, personnel, and facilities available to the juvenile court which might be competent to deal with the child’s particular problems.
These findings – the same ones that judges in transfer hearings are legally required to make – are central to a transfer decision, whether it is made by a judge or by a prosecutor.”