Life, Death, Life Again: Children Sentenced to Die in Prison

For eight years, from 2007 to 2015, I worked as a case analyst at the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to freeing people who have been wrongfully convicted. My job was to review requests for help from those seeking representation. For cases that I determined warranted an in-depth investigation, I read trial transcripts, police reports and lab reports, and I corresponded extensively with the person seeking help.

It was then up to me to create a new narrative of the case that had not been written — about how a person may be innocent, and how we can, how we must, prove it with DNA testing. I would lay out a roadmap to exoneration — what could be tested, what result was needed — and advocate for these people to become clients. Several of them have been exonerated and are now free. Many more remain in prison.

An exoneration is monumental for the person incarcerated, her family and the victim and his family. It is remarkable in what it teaches us about the fallibility of the criminal justice system. However, an exoneration does not make us question our reliance on imprisonment to achieve justice. Instead, it reinforces this framework. Convicting the innocent is viewed as a miscarriage of justice, but the assumptions embedded in this premise — the intersectionality of incarceration and justice — are never examined.

At one Innocence Network conference in April 2014, attendees, including myself, listened to exonerees perform monologues they had crafted. Most of their performances focused on the inhumanity, isolation and cruelty of prison. Every person in the room was crying. A thought nagged at me as I looked around the room: Were they only crying because these people were innocent and tormented? Would this torment be acceptable if they were guilty of the horrific crimes they were wrongfully convicted of?

After that, I set out to create a documentary play about this very issue: the humanity of the guilty and the power of forgiveness.

From 2014 to 2017, I interviewed by phone, mail or email people who were convicted of crimes they committed as children and sentenced to life. I also interviewed family members of murder victims who have chosen to forgive and reconcile with the youth who killed their loved one, like Bill Pelke and Jeanne Bishop. I have taken these stories of violence, restorative justice and radical forgiveness and woven them into a play.

During the time of these interactions, in January 2016, the Supreme Court made a historic decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana. In 2012 the court had banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles. Now, in Montgomery v. Louisiana they ruled that the 2012 decision would apply retroactively, meaning that about 2,000 incarcerated people would be eligible for resentencing.

Among these thousands were two of the people featured in my play: Joe and Anne. (These are pseudonyms as their cases are still active. Identifying details have been changed as well.)

At the time of this writing, they remain in prison and are awaiting resentencing.

The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison, according to the Sentencing Project. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have no one serving a life without parole sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile (JLWOP), either due to a ban or because no one is serving the sentence. About half of JLWOP sentences are from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Louisiana and California.

Systemic racism permeates who is sentenced to life and who is not: Human Rights Watch found that 60 percent of youth offenders serving life without parole are black and 29 percent percent are white.

Like so many others living in our prison cells, Joe, now in his 30s, had been a victim before he was labelled a perpetrator. According to a Sentencing Project survey of people serving life without parole for an offense committed as a juvenile, almost 80 percent witnessed violence in their homes regularly and just under half were physically abused.

Abuse permeated Joe’s childhood home.

“My mother was loving but she had a temper,” Joe told me. “When I was 9 years old, I woke up at 2 in the morning. I was in my bed and I could hear my 16-year-old sister, screaming and pleading with my mother. My mother was in the bathroom beating her. I hated myself because I wasn't able to stop it. I felt like a coward. I lay there crying, not knowing what to do.”

At 15, he broke into a home, and then realized the homeowner was home.

“I shot him,” Joe told me. “I was crying. I told him, I told him, I was sorry.”

Joe was quickly arrested and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“Being away from my loved ones, it's like losing a limb, eventually you get used to it,” Joe told me of his time in prison. “You get to walking and moving around like you were born that way.”

I asked Joe if he had forgiven himself.

“I don't think it's really my place to forgive myself,” he told me. “I wronged Daniel [the victim]. I wronged his family. You know, I killed Daniel. I wronged his family. I wronged my family. I wasn't the one that was most harmed by what I did.”

Forgiveness, Sean Taylor, told me, is essential to his survival.

“I don't think I would be here if I hadn't forgiven myself,” Sean said. “I have forgiven myself. I don't allow myself to suffer any more for the things that I've done.”

At 14 years old, Sean joined a gang. Growing up, his parents both struggled with drug addiction, and his father cycled in and out of prison.

“I started to sell crack to help supplement the income of my household,” he explained. “Also, to just to have that camaraderie and to have someone to look to as father figures, just any type of leadership.”

Sean also felt that what he called the “façade of being a gangster” protected him.

“You don't have to fight as much because people are afraid of you because you're a gangster,” he told me. “They know that you'll shoot or they know that you'll do something crazy so they'll leave you alone.” 

At 17, he shot at a house from a rival gang, and killed one of the occupants. Before he fired the shot, he yelled out: “I’m about to shoot!”

“I said that as like a warning to them because I really wasn't trying to hurt anyone,” Sean said. “What's crazy is I actually made sure there was no one standing there. I looked and in my mind, I said, ‘OK, no one's there, now it's safe to shoot.’ And, so I pulled that trigger, and we drove away.” 

Later that night a friend told him to turn on the news. It was then that he learned that his bullet had killed a fellow 17-year-old who was inside the house.

“I didn't know what to do,” Sean told me. “I was panicking. My mother was there. My brother was crying.”

He turned himself in. 

“The charges were first-degree homicide, but the counts were, count one extreme indifference and count two, universal malice, which basically means that they were saying I was the kind of guy that would shoot anywhere, shoot anything, and just not care who the bullet hit.”

In 1990, he was convicted and sentenced to life. He wouldn’t be eligible for parole until he served 40 years.

While in prison he was inspired by Assata Shakur’s autobiography to leave the gang — she had to escape prison, he had to escape his “negative lifestyle,” he explained. He converted to Islam while incarcerated and devoted his life to mentoring young men, a calling he still pursues on the outside. Sean is the deputy director of the Second Chance Center, Inc., which helps formerly incarcerated people “transition to lives of success and fulfillment.”

In 2011, Sean’s sentence was commuted to five years of parole.
“Every day I wake up and I look at trees, things that are not in prison,” Sean told me. “I look at the fact that I'm able to walk down the street. I'm able to walk on a sidewalk. I’m able to hear the ice cream truck go by. You know things like that. I still get overwhelmed because freedom is such a precious gift.”

It is a gift that Joe dreams of receiving as he awaits resentencing.

I asked Joe what could be learned from his story.

“You're responsible for your life, for your own actions,” Joe answered. “You can always look for a better way and don't give up on yourself. Don't be afraid to ask for help.”

He’s right. But there is more.

What is done with the thousands of Joes reflects on our character as a nation, a character that is in dire question as the inhumane and illogical policies from Washington trickle down: Do we believe that children are different — as volumes of research on brain development shows, as the Supreme Court has declared, as we all know to be true? Do we believe that an act a child commits should condemn him or her to die in prison — a sentence singular to our country?

I asked Joe if he had dreams of his life on the outside prior to the Supreme Court decision in Montgomery.

“Yeah, everybody has to have a dream, right?” he answered, laughing, as he often did when we spoke. “Yeah, but it changes as the years pass. It changes. When I was younger I figured I would retire by this, by 30, I thought I'd be able to retire. And I'm 34 now, so I can't make up for lost time, but I can take advantage of all the time I have, when I do have a chance to be free.”

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg is the communications director for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the author of the documentary play, Life, Death, Life Again: Children Sentenced to Die in Prison, which is in development with coLAB Arts. She teaches a course on wrongful convictions at Rutgers University and was a case analyst at the Innocence Project from 2007-15. The views expressed here are her own.

S.O.U.L. Sisters Empowers Black Girls Most Impacted by Inequality

Last month, a group of girls at a juvenile detention center in the Bronx sat in a discussion circle with a teaching artist and a social worker. After a series of circle meetings, the girls at Horizon Juvenile Center in New York City had created vision boards, collages in which they envisioned their life five years from now.

The group was initiated by S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective, a nonprofit that works to empower black girls who are “most impacted by oppression.” The organization — which serves girls in New York City and Miami with a budget of $200,000 — creates space for girls to express themselves and examine their lives in the context of larger social issues.

“We ask them where they are, and we meet them where they are,” said Jamy Drapeza, New York City program coordinator.

For more information about RACIAL AND ETHNIC FAIRNESS, go to JJIE Resource Hub | RACIAL AND ETHNIC FAIRNESS

Young women of color face great adversity, according to the organization.

Black girls encounter significant bias starting as young as 5 years old, according to a June report from Georgetown Law Center. They’re “adultified” and seen as less innocent and less in need of protection than their white peers, according to “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.”

The report said such bias leads to harsher school discipline for black girls and harsher penalties in juvenile court.

It’s not news to Drapeza. S.O.U.L. Sisters works to counter the impact of stereotypes in the lives of black girls. Many of the girls are in the child welfare system or juvenile justice system.


S.O.U.L. Sisters’ branches in New York City and Miami offer free out-of-school-time workshops in which girls:

  1. think carefully about social issues
  2. express themselves through various arts
  3. attend to their own healing and
  4. gain leadership skills through teamwork, relationship with a mentor and social action internships.

For example, they may explore who has power in society and who doesn’t by using spoken word, theater, film or photography. Their exploration usually culminates in an arts-based action project.

This spring, Drapeza also took after-school workshops to Passages Academy, which serves kids in the New York City child welfare system.

“All our programs start with circle practices,” she said. Girls gather in a circle and create an agreement with guidelines for working together.

The organization uses the methods of educator Paolo Friere, eliciting what the girls want in the program and seeking to support them.

S.O.U.L. Sisters also has a Youth Leadership Board that helps run workshops, plan for the organization and spearhead actions in their communities.

Nine girls in Miami recently took part in a Youth Leadership Board retreat, where they worked on a new vision and mission statement for the organization.

In addition, S.O.U.L. Sisters provides training to youth workers in New York City and Miami in its methods of gender-responsive programming, trauma-informed practice and restorative justice.

To address the problems in how black girls are treated, the organization works with girls who have “lived and breathed inequality,” according to the organization’s website, offering them a path to leadership to transform their communities.

A Civil Rights Movement Grows in Brooklyn

NEW YORK — Two meetings last week, one in a modest community center across the street from a waterfront Brooklyn housing project, the other in a well-lit assembly room in New York City’s elite criminal justice college in the heart of Manhattan, illustrated how a fledgling civil rights movement is growing around the tactics used by police to target young people in the city’s housing projects.

Youth activists, parents, legal experts, cop watchers and other social justice activists gathered in the Red Hook Initiative community center for a forum entitled: “Raids and Conspiracy in NYCHA.” They are worried that the youth in the Red Hook Houses are in the crosshairs of the next large-scale police raid. The night was dedicated, organizers said, to the teens, parents and other residents trying to organize to thwart the potential raid and be prepared if it comes.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logo“If it’s something that’s potentially on the menu for Red Hook, we definitely want to do everything we can to help you guys,” said writer and activist Josmar Trujillo, one of the organizers of the March 15 event. “... You’re the only ones that know how to fight this.”

Since the ostensible end of stop-and-frisk practices in 2013, the New York Police Department has turned more aggressively to a policy it nicknamed “Operation Crew Cut,” a pun on the “crews” or informal gangs the operation is charged with breaking up through large-scale raids, surveillance and close cooperation with the district attorney’s offices in the five boroughs.

In 2013, then-Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly described the scope and aim of Operation Crew Cut in a press conference after a small raid in Brownsville, Brooklyn, that resulted in 20 suspects being indicted, a year after the program was announced.

“Strategic enforcement and proactive policing combined with strong prosecutorial partnerships, including attention to the new battleground of social media, have resulted in lives being saved in New York City, mostly young minority men,” Kelly said.

Since then the scale of the raids has increased exponentially. Now they tend to sweep up 100-plus black and/or Latino teens or men in their early 20s at a time, such as the 2014 raid of the Manhattanville and Grant houses in Harlem, when 103 young people were charged. At the time it was the largest raid in the history of the NYPD, the largest police department in the Western Hemisphere. In 2016, 700 NYPD and federal law enforcement officers swept up more than 120 young people at the Eastchester Gardens in the north Bronx, now the city’s largest raid to date.

For more information about RACIAL AND ETHNIC FAIRNESS, go to JJIE Resource Hub | RACIAL AND ETHNIC FAIRNESS

At the Red Hook meeting, activists advised the youths to be careful about their use of technology and what they post on social media. Take precautions by using encrypted messaging apps like Signal and using an 11-digit or longer PIN to lock their phones, they said.

Paula Clarke, whose son was targeted during the 2016 raid, warned how someone can be considered guilty by association via use of the conspiracy law RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Authorities can implicate someone because of who they went to school with or who they play basketball with in the park.

Paula Clarke, the mother of one of the men arrested in the 2016 gang raid in the Bronx, and activist Josmar Trujillo spoke to a crowd of Red Hook residents on March 15 about the potential for a gang raid in Red Hook.

“I mean even if you like something on Facebook, you’re guilty,” she said.

The burgeoning movement to fight the raids and related tactics includes violence interrupters working with youth in the city’s housing projects and academics researching the revised policing methods.

[Related: Family, Friends in Harlem React to Young Man’s Sentencing for Gang-related Murder, Crimes]

Taylonn Murphy Sr., whose daughter was killed in the Ulysses Grant Houses in 2011 and whose son Taylonn Jr. was arrested during the 2014 raid, emphasized the need for community organizing as a form of resistance and as a way to get ahead of the authorities.

“What slows them down is that they see progress,” he said. “That they see people standing together. Unity. In unity there’s strength.”

Murphy, who lost one child to gun violence and another to the criminal justice system, became emotional when he addressed the young people in the audience.

“You all have to be ready to step up and fight this fight because this fight is about you,” he said. “This fight is for the youth. This fight is not for us old dudes. This fight is for you. And you gotta fight; you have to be able to have the courage enough to stand in front of these people and these entities and these institutions and let them know that, yo, this is your home. This is where you from. You don’t want to be harassed. You don’t want nobody coming up running in your house at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

The speakers promoted the idea of creating community-led initiatives centered around the needs of the neighborhood. They told the residents to become active politically locally by attending community council meetings and by reaching out to elected officials and letting them know that they are invested in policy.

Two days later, the setting was decidedly different — the assembly room at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan near Central Park — but the message was the same. This time it was a panel labelled: “Stop the Gang Raids: Fighting the New ‘Superpredator’ Myth.”

David Brotherton, a professor from John Jay, asked the audience if New York City is the safest city in the world. Yes, if you are talking about crime rates.

“But is it really safe for brown and black people?” he asked, with aggressive police tactics like Operation Crew Cut in place.

Taylonn Murphy Sr. (left) and Paula Clarke (middle), both parents of sons arrested in previous NYPD gang raids, and activist Josmar Trujillo spoke at a meeting at the Red Hook Initiative community center.

These heavy-handed police tactics rely on exploiting panics, Brotherton said. Targeting gangs is a classic example of ginning up fear around a group to justify broad and aggressive police policies.

“Gangs fits all these panics,” he said.

At both events the organizers and activists discussed technology, the minutiae of city housing law, the pitfalls of gentrification and the threat posed by community partnerships used to collect intelligence on young people in the housing projects.

Dennis Flores, who organized the Brooklyn cop-watching group El Grito (the scream), offered to help train and organize such a group in Red Hook. He told the teens that cop watching is not just about having a video to post online.

“You have to look at this as self-defense,” he said. “This is how I protect my people.”

The 15 or so teenagers perked up when Flores showed a video of one of his tours in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It shows him approaching a young black man with his face against a shuttered store front gate after being stopped by police. When Flores asks why they stopped him, one officer responds that he looks like a robbery suspect.

How does he fits the description, Flores asks.

He’s black, wearing jeans and has an Afro, the officer says.

Flores, talking to the crowd, joked: “That describes everybody in the ’hood!”

Eventually, the police, wanting to avoid scrutiny, let the young man go. The young people in the audience gasp in shock and approval.

“Anybody got questions?” another El Grito member asked.

“Yeah, I got a question,” one of the teenagers said. “How we start this?”

Zach Williams and New York Bureau staff contributed to this story.

This story has been updated.

More related articles: 

Blood Feud in Harlem Takes Young Lives, Hurts Community

Discord Among Parents in Wake of Harlem Raid

Few Harlem Youths at Planning Meeting Against Violence

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We Need an Intersectional Approach to Juvenile Justice Reform

Marie WilliamsDMC (disproportionate minority contact) is no longer simply about the over-representation of black and brown youth in the juvenile justice system. In recent years, it has come to mean something far broader and deeper to those in the reform trenches.

As part of their DMC reduction efforts, practitioners and reformers are now paying much closer attention to the special needs of other groups who are minorities in the general youth population — like LGBT youth, young people with behavioral and other health needs and homeless youth — but disproportionately represented in juvenile justice systems nationwide. The field has begun to recognize but has yet to fully address intersections among and between all these issues, including racial and ethnic disparities.

For more information about racial-ethnic fairness topics, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Racial-Ethnic Fairness

One reason states and localities have been slow to act is that while they are now coalescing around the notion that children who come into contact with the juvenile justice system must be looked at through a “whole child” lens, the federal approach remains largely siloed.

Last congressional session, Congress failed yet again to approve the long-overdue renewal of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The bill would have begun to codify some of what the field has learned over the last decade about complex juvenile justice issues, including disproportionate minority contact.

The reauthorized JJDPA would have given clearer direction to states and localities to plan and implement data-driven approaches to ensure fairness and reduce racial and ethnic disparities. It also required states, for the first time, to set out and publicly report on progress toward measurable objectives for disparity reduction.

While these changes are much-needed and laudable, they represent the barest of minimums for what state systems can and should do to meaningfully address DMC. They also evince a narrow view of the nature and scope of the disparities that exist in the 21st-century juvenile justice system, and a scant understanding of how those disparities intersect with (but are not limited to) race and ethnicity.

The DMC core requirement of the JJDPA, as presently conceptualized, seeks to measure disparities in terms of “contact” or “decision points” within the system. In theory, if a state finds and implements mechanisms to address bias — whether implicit or explicit — at those points, disparities should be reduced.

This is true, but incomplete. That approach to DMC reduction fails to recognize what reformers on the ground have known for some time — disparities in the juvenile justice system are only a function of more far-reaching societal disparities, and can only be addressed in juvenile justice if also addressed in other systems, and the community at large.

For example, societal bias against LGBT youth is only mirrored in the juvenile justice system, it does not originate there. So addressing it in terms of juvenile justice contact points does little to truly fix the problem. Likewise, disproportionate use of exclusionary school discipline policies against youth with behavioral health issues is not adequately addressed in the juvenile justice system, but should be tackled before they are referred there.

[Related: Former Attorney General Holder Urges Action on Racial Issues Under Trump]

A new guide from Impact Justice and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, “Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, Questioning,and/or Gender Nonconforming and Transgender Girls and Boys in the California Juvenile Justice System: A Practice Guide,” illustrates the conundrum. It details the startling statistic that more than half the girls in California’s juvenile facilities are either LGBT or gender nonconforming. Under current federal DMC reduction requirements, there is no obligation on the part of states participating in the JJDPA to address this issue.

But when one considers that a majority of those girls are also black, the need for intersectional approaches becomes apparent. Race, this data seems to suggest, is only part of the picture; and strategies that address DMC with that lens alone runs the risk of being completely ineffective.

In fact, many states and localities don’t collect data that would enable them to identify, let alone address, the needs of this disproportionately represented intersectional-identity population.

According to the IMPACT Justice report:

“[a] large body of research has been developed on racial and ethnic disparities (RED). There are more research papers, blogs, policy briefs, infographics and other pieces of information on RED (racial and ethnic disparities) because more of that data exists. The vast majority of police departments,probation departments, juvenile courts, public defenders, and district attorneys keep track of the race or ethnicity of the youth they serve. In contrast, most don’t keep track of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression (SOGIE) within their case management systems.”

Similarly, the True Colors Fund estimates that four in 10 youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBT, though they represent only approximately seven percent of the general youth population. Young people experiencing homelessness, studies show, are more likely to commit survival crimes: petty theft, trespassing, loitering and even sex work in order to get by. Consequently, many become juvenile justice system-involved. These young people are also predominantly youth of color.

Responses to their acts, rather than to the root causes, do little to address the underlying problem, or the youths’ needs. Likewise, responding with strategies solely or primarily with reference to their race is doomed to failure.

One framework for developing an “intersectional strategy” is the 100-day challenge, which seeks to use the urgency of time to bring together stakeholders to develop plans of action to address youth homelessness. This strategy, which was used effectively to address veteran homelessness, is now being used by jurisdictions like Philadelphia to address youth homelessness.

Since many youth who “age out” or discharge from the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are at high risk for becoming homeless, and make up a significant percentage of the homeless youth and young adult population, the initiative includes subgroups charged with developing recommendations and action plans for improved transition and reentry planning as well as age-appropriate service delivery.

To ensure that the recommendations are well-informed, experts from the schools, shelters, juvenile justice and child welfare systems have been engaged in this process, with the understanding that young people who experience homelessness often come into contact with — or are failed by — multiple systems. And it will take a similar, multisystem, intersectional approach to meet their needs.

While the 100-Day Challenge is not framed as “addressing DMC” or even as a juvenile justice initiative per se, it will undoubtedly benefit the field by broadening our understanding about the nature and pathways of young people who come into the system, and how to keep them out.

System stakeholders, advocates and policymakers across the country and at the national level should take note of the lessons learned from the Philadelphia 100-Day Challenge and similar initiatives. By breaking down barriers to collaboration and employing an intersectional approach that engages all child-serving systems and looks at the “whole child,” we can implement reform that addresses broader social issues well beyond the juvenile justice system, and that works to the benefit of youth, families and communities as a whole.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

More related articles:

We Must End Severe Racial Inequity of Charges Against N.J. Children

Officer Who Shot Ramarley Graham Committed ‘Egregious Violations,’ Expert Agrees in Trial

Teaching Moment: Police Brutality and Raising a Black Son

Former Attorney General Holder Urges Action on Racial Issues Under Trump

ATLANTA — Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had some words of advice on Wednesday that could have come from a youth worker’s toolkit.

“Look at [community] organizations that need our help,” he told an audience at the Carter Center concerned about the Trump administration’s impact on the lives of African Americans. “There are a million kids starving for attention that we as adults can give.”

Mentoring a young person is one way of taking individual action, he said, and working toward a more just society.

But Holder and other panelists at a discussion on race spoke mostly about collective response to a president they fear will roll back the rights of people of color, as well as other groups.

“There’s a real power in being in the streets and making our voices heard,” Holder said. “That’s a huge check on executive branch power.”

Among the five panelists was Elizabeth Hinton, a Harvard University assistant professor who focuses on poverty and racial inequality.

“We need to develop a cross-generation, cross-class, interracial coalition … to be able to take back our community,” Hinton said.


President Lyndon Johnson saw poverty as the root cause of crime 50 years ago and launched both the War on Poverty, which included the Head Start program for children, and a campaign to get tough on crime, she said. The militarization of police began in that era, she said.

The Trump administration has dropped the “war on poverty” approach, retaining only a “get tough” approach, she said. For example, Trump in a tweet has threatened to “send in the feds” to fix the “carnage” of crime in Chicago,

Hinton said the mistake is to try to fix social and economic problems — also seen as African-American problems — through police force.

Panelist DeRay McKesson is a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and co-founder of Campaign Zero, which advocates for police reform. Campaign Zero expects the Trump administration to escalate police violence and incarceration, according to its website.

McKesson said the movement has spent the past two years building awareness and getting the public to understand that police killings of young black men is a national problem. As a result, at least 88 laws addressing police violence have been passed, according to Campaign Zero.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates leave a panel discussion at the Carter Center on Wednesday. Holder, a speaker at the event, said public protests can help curb the Trump administration, and he said he is working with former President Obama to undo gerrymandering of congressional districts. Yates was a member of the audience.

What’s needed now is a movement of people who know what the solutions are and have the skills to build them, he said.

Get people to use power in a different way, McKesson said. Urge those with money to think carefully about what they’re funding.

[Related: We Must End Severe Racial Inequity of Charges Against N.J. Children]

Explore what it means “to be in your role and do what’s right regardless,” he said.

Social media is one of the tools, he said.

“Start where you are,” McKesson said. “I didn’t get a call from Harriet Tubman to be an activist.”

McKesson took questions after the event standing alongside Cedric Alexander, deputy chief operating officer for public safety in DeKalb County, Georgia.

Alexander said he was worried about the rhetoric of the Trump administration: The message from the White House is that police are too soft on crime and need to lock people up.

“Hearing this language takes us back to the beginning — and not just back to Michael Brown,” he said in a reference to the longer history of blacks in America.

The language puts both the community and the police at risk, he said.

“We cannot go backwards,” Alexander said.

Holder’s new plan

Holder said he was working with former President Barack Obama on a plan to undo gerrymandering, the drawing of congressional districts to benefit a specific political party.

Also on the panel was Michael Eric Dyson, author of the book “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.” The travel ban, as well as Trump’s comments about women, have been some of the worst bigotry in years, Dyson said.

Sitting front and center in the audience was Sally Yates, Holder’s former second-in-command at the Department of Justice. Yates became acting attorney general after Holder’s departure but was fired by Trump in January after she said she would not enforce Trump’s executive order instituting a 90-day ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Recognized and introduced from the stage by a panelist, Yates said firmly, “I’m just in the audience.”

Doug Blackmon, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” moderated the panel, which was sponsored by the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum  and the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

More related articles:

Officer Who Shot Ramarley Graham Committed ‘Egregious Violations,’ Expert Agrees in Trial

Teaching Moment: Police Brutality and Raising a Black Son

Implicit Bias: More Than Just a Few Bad Apples

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We Must End Severe Racial Inequity of Charges Against N.J. Children

retha-arms-crossed headshotofficial-copyMartin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Today, the first day of Black History Month, faith leaders from across New Jersey are joining together to condemn one of the major injustices of our time: the stark racial disparities within our state’s youth prisons.

These grave racial inequities were laid bare in a recent report by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, entitled “Bring Our Children Home: Ain’t I A Child.” Despite the fact that black and white children have similar rates of offending, black children make up almost 75 percent of those committed to juvenile facilities in our state. Indeed, black youth are more than 24 times more likely to be placed in a secure juvenile facility than white children.

For more information about racial-ethnic fairness, visit the JJIE Resource Hub | Racial-Ethnic Fairness

Religious leaders of all different faiths and denominations recognize youth incarceration — and its inherent racial disparities — is an issue of morality, not just of policy. As Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange said, “When we see such racial disparity among incarcerated youth in our state, we are commanded to act. We must be keepers of all of our brothers and sisters, and pursue justice to end such extreme racial disparity in our prisons and specifically, among juveniles.”

This sentiment is shared by the Rev. Sara Lijia, director of the Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry, who says, “The racial disparities in the Institute’s report are a call to action for people of conscience across the state. We have a moral obligation to care for all of God’s children and ensure that all children have an opportunity to succeed.”

And the Rev. Timothy Jones, senior pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, echoes his peers’ sense of urgency: “This month, as we are reminded of our great history, reminded that not only do our lives matter but that they’ve always mattered and have always been an integral part of the fabric of the American project, we are also reminded of the work left to be done in dismantling this new but much too old Jim Crow of black youth incarceration.”

The Rev. Terry Richardson of the First Baptist Church of South Orange has also reflected on how these racial disparities signify a call to arms for our state’s faith community: “How do we affirm the dignity of our youth, motivate them, and help them take responsibility for their own lives if we in society continue to ignore the immoral disparity where black youth are over 24 times more likely to be committed to a secure juvenile facility than their white counterparts in the state of New Jersey? It’s imperative that the faith-based community and the juvenile justice system work together to create a new normal.”

No matter the creed, we speak with one voice: These racial disparities highlight a moral crisis in our state, and people of conscience must come together to end this systemic assault on our most vulnerable children.

So then, what is to be done?

Our leaders can — and must — act to correct these disparities that are felt so acutely by black children and their families:

Divest and reinvest:

Incarcerating one child in New Jersey costs about $540 per day as compared with $75 a day to place a child in a community-based program, which have been shown to be more effective in reducing recidivism. We should divest from costly youth prisons and reinvest that money in community-based programs with wraparound services that keep kids with their families. When out-of-home placement is necessary, youth should be held in small, community-based, therapeutic residential programs with the ultimate goal of returning to their homes.

Prohibit incarcerating youth for nonviolent offenses:

In 2013, 74 percent of all committed youth in our country had been adjudicated for a nonviolent offense. As the institute notes in its report, of the 507 youth committed in New Jersey at the time of a 2013 one-day count, almost one-third had committed a technical violation, a drug offense or a property offense. While we work toward our ultimate goal in which no child is incarcerated, we must move to ensure that, at minimum, no child is incarcerated for a nonviolent offense.

Increase the use of stationhouse adjustments:

A stationhouse adjustment is a way to divert children from becoming involved in the so-called “deep end” of the juvenile justice system. Instead of a formal complaint being filed, a law enforcement officer can order a child who has committed a minor offense to, for instance, perform community service or pay restitution. Unfortunately, as noted in the institute’s report, the use of this diversionary tool varies widely across our state’s counties, with some not using them at all.

Currently, the attorney general’s guidelines on stationhouse adjustments outline the “minimum stationhouse adjustment process.” To strengthen this program, the attorney general can, as the institute report recommends, issue another directive that provides more comprehensive guidance on how to implement the program effectively. This directive should also grant law enforcement officers the flexibility to divert certain offenses without prosecutorial consent.

Psalms 69:33 reads, "For the Lord hears the cries of the needy; he does not despise his imprisoned people.” We too must hear the cries of our youth longing for rehabilitation, not incarceration. What does it say about the moral fiber of our state if we don’t ensure that our most vulnerable are treated equitably?

People of conscience and leaders in the faith community, we ask you to join our Youth Justice New Jersey coalition to help end this moral injustice. Youth Justice New Jersey is a statewide coalition of advocates, parents, youth, researchers and attorneys working together to reform our juvenile justice system and ensure that every child is treated as a child. Email Retha Onitiri at to join.  

Mass incarceration of people of color, especially youth of color, is the civil rights issue of our day. And like those heroic soldiers for justice who came before us, those who declared, “Ain’t I A Woman,” we must now answer the children who cry out, “Ain’t I A Child.”

Retha Onitiri, PMP, is the juvenile justice campaign manager at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. The Juvenile Justice Campaign’s primary goal is decarceration — reducing the number of youth locked in secure facilities in New Jersey.

The Rev. Charles Boyer is the pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Woodbury, New Jersey. He is the coordinator of the Covenant Project to Eradicate Mass Incarceration and serves with the New Jersey Campaign For Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, the Coalition of Religious Leaders in New Jersey and The Interfaith Prison Coalition. He is the founder of Salvation and Social Justice, a coalition seeking to bridge dialogue and strategy between religious leaders and civil rights organizations.



Officer Who Shot Ramarley Graham Committed ‘Egregious Violations,’ Expert Agrees in Trial

NEW YORK — The first two days of the disciplinary trial of New York Police Department officer Richard Haste revealed a departmental conflict between the pursuit of illegal firearms and rules that require an individual police officer to confront an armed suspect only in the event of an emergency.

Haste fatally shot 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in the Bronx nearly five years ago, but the death will not be the determining factor in whether Deputy Commissioner Rosemarie Maldonado — who oversees the case — decides to fire him. Instead, prosecutors are arguing that Haste made decisions in the minutes before the 2012 shooting that disregarded his training, violated department protocol and require that he lose his badge.

“The tragic death of Ramarley Graham could have and should have been avoided,” said Beth Douglas, an attorney who is prosecuting the case for the department, in her opening statements on Tuesday.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logoGraham’s death thrust his mother, Constance Malcolm, into the national spotlight in recent years. She became a vocal critic of a police department that has faced protests and criticism for a string of police killings of unarmed black men like Eric Garner and Akai Gurley. Justice has appeared elusive for Malcolm ever since a 2012 indictment against Haste was dismissed on a technicality. But if Maldonado rules that Haste deserves to be fired, Malcolm and other NYPD critics will celebrate the rare firing of an NYPD police officer for shooting a civilian.  

The central facts of the case are not in dispute, defense attorney Stuart London told Maldonado. He offered a common defense in police shootings nationwide. The work of law enforcement requires split-second decision-making, he said.

“Police work shouldn’t be subject to second-guessing,” he said.

No call for backup

The trial centers on a few minutes on the afternoon of Feb. 2, 2012 when experience, training and a few tugs at the waist convinced a team of narcotics officers that Ramarley Graham had a gun.

For more information about racial-ethnic fairness, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Racial-Ethnic Fairness

Two of them — Andrew Jarvis and Tyrone Horne — were parked near the corner of White Plains Road and East 228th St. when Graham aroused their suspicions by reportedly entering a bodega and leaving soon after. Jarvis says he saw Graham tug his jeans and told his partner that there was a gun inside his waistband. The two plainclothes officers followed Graham and two of his friends around the corner to East 229th St.

Haste meanwhile heard the report of an illegal gun and hurried to 749 East 229th St.

What Haste did in the following minutes will determine whether Maldonado rules in favor of firing him. Video surveillance shows Graham calmly entering his home just seconds before Haste runs up to the door, kicks it and tries to enter. The prosecution and defense agree that he went to the backyard, entered through a back door and opened the front door for fellow officers. Then he led them up the stairs to the second floor where he continued a series of mistakes, according to prosecutors.


They say that at this time he should have called for backup and sealed the scene. The department trains a special unit to confront an armed gunman, Douglas told the court. But Haste moved upstairs before making another mistake, she said.

Haste had no idea what dangers lay ahead, she said. But when he saw Graham down the hallway, Haste still followed him. He did not ask his commanding officer for instructions. Instead he broke down the door Graham had hidden behind.

In Haste’s mind, a gunman was on the loose and he had to be apprehended, London said. No gun was ever found at the scene, but Haste had every reason to believe there was one at the moment he confronted Graham after bursting through a bathroom door, London said.

Should police be judged in hindsight?

Fellow defense lawyer Mike Martinez tried to counter expert testimony from Inspector Gregory Sheehan today that Haste’s action demonstrated a series of tactical errors. He repeatedly asked Sheehan — who oversees the Special Training Section of the NYPD Police Academy — whether split-second decisions by Haste should be judged by “hindsight,” given Haste’s expectation that Graham was armed.

“When an officer hears there is a gun involved it takes things to another level, right?” Martinez asked Sheehan.

Sheehan agreed. But when prosecutor Nancy Slater later asked him whether he had ever seen more "egregious violations" of protocol as those committed by Haste by the time he confronted Graham face-to-face, he said, "No I have not."

A department review has already determined that Haste adhered to protocol when he fatally shot Graham in the chest as the teenager tried to flush a small amount of marijuana.

A grand jury indicted Haste for manslaughter in 2012, but improper jury instructions led a judge to dismiss the case. Another grand jury opted to not press charges. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York also declined to press charges, this time for civil rights violations. The city settled a wrongful-death lawsuit with Graham’s family for $3.9 million in 2015.

But the department itself must address the fatal shootings of unarmed people of color and hold individual officers accountable, Constance Malcolm said. The defense’s version of events at the current trial should not obscure the fact that Graham was killed in his own home because of the actions of Richard Haste, she told reporters at a press conference outside police headquarters Tuesday.

“Ramarley didn’t run from anybody. He did not point a gun at anybody. So why is my son not here? Richard Haste was too hasty,” Malcolm said. “All he had to do was wait for backup but he chose not to.”

Haste did not speak to the press. He is expected to testify later this week.

This story has been updated.

Teaching Moment: Police Brutality and Raising a Black Son

Zerline HughesI don’t recall ever feeling like this. Aimless. Angry. Depressed. Defeated. Tired. These feelings are synonymous with PTSD and mourning. It took me half the day Thursday to realize I am, in fact, mourning. I’m mourning the loss of 123 black men who lost their lives this year at the hands of irresponsible, improperly trained law enforcement officials.

I’m mourning for my son, who today is healthy, bright-eyed and alive, but tomorrow, on stepping out the front door of our home, could very well be the next trending hashtag, relegated to a name on a T-shirt.

My son could too easily be the 124th black male casualty of the year. Or next year, or in another 20 years. What a way to live — expecting an untimely death not because of a rare disease, not because of a dangerous lifestyle, but simply because of being a black male.

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Despite watching Facebook Live broadcasted protests, seeing my hashtag-filled tweets and listening to my calls discussing the death of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I feel like my son is oblivious to what is happening. And I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.

Sure, he’s a kid. Just 13. Why would I want my son to get amped up, scared, frantic? Why not keep all this bad news away from him and allow him to be oblivious? What is happening right before his eyes is the very R-rated stuff he’s not allowed to see at the movie theaters.

[RELATED: Implicit Bias: More Than Just a Few Bad Apples]

At this point, however, I think I want him to be upset and outraged because I am. Because all of us are. Because it is his life on the line today and seemingly forevermore. I want him to know that my ranting, raving and pacing around the house during his summer break is happening because I’m at wits’ end about how to respond, how to protect him, how to continue on.

Shouldn’t he see that that two people killed within two days of one another would be alive today had they not been black? Even the governor of Minnesota said Castile would have been alive today if he were white.

So I did a bad thing. I told my son that 123 black men were killed by cops in 187 days. I went on to tell him that’s almost one black man dead each day on the calendar. I then sweetened the pot and said his chances of getting killed by a peace officer is more likely than him becoming a millionaire. I kept going and going because I wanted him to react, and I was getting nothing.

What a bad, bad parent. I was forcing my trauma on to him, trying to make him feel my pain, feel defeated.

Luckily he’s used to my negativity. He’s used to me spewing off statistics like “1 in 3 black men will touch the criminal justice system in their lifetime.” He hears me day in and day out talk about the race disparity in our justice system and community services.

This is the predicament too many of us black parents are encountering right now with our young kids and teenagers. We find ourselves having to be gravely honest with them. We’re regularly explaining to them the bounty that is on their heads, the challenges that lie before them in the classrooms and on the streets.

Hours later I apologized to my son and instead of trying to force a reaction out of him, I calmly asked what he thought about the killing of two men this week and the scores of others over the last few years.

His response: “Way too many black people have been killed by police and most or none of the police were actually sent to jail. That’s unfair to other black people because that means they could be killed, too, and nothing would happen. You care because you’re an adult and pay more attention to what’s going on. Because I’m a teen, I don’t want to pay attention … but I know what’s happening.”

He also said he’s not afraid of being killed by the police. Well, that’s good … I guess. I mean, I don’t want him to walk around scared. I wish I could be as calm and cool as he is. I wish, like him, I had no fear.

But until our call to action is heard, I want him alert, expecting the unexpected — or in this case, the expected.

Zerline Hughes is a Washington, D.C., communications consultant and blogger on social justice issues. Her blog Not These Two focuses on keeping her children out of the school-to-prison pipeline. Follow her on Twitter at @zerlinehughes.

More related articles:

How to Explain and Protect Youth of Color From Police Misconduct, Trauma

Choosing the Positive Narrative for Black Children in America

Implicit Bias: More Than Just a Few Bad Apples

content-sidebar-weddingYouth of color experience the worst outcomes in every youth-serving system, including law enforcement, child welfare and education, the data show conclusively. This is due in part to unconscious or implicit biases that affect our understanding of individuals, based on their race and ethnicity, and cause us to alter our decision-making accordingly.

As decision-makers we are often oblivious to our own biases and the pervasive patterns of discrimination that exist within our agencies and institutions.

Many people reject the idea that race and ethnic disparities in youth-serving systems are caused by racism or bias. That’s because they think of racism only in terms of blatant acts of discrimination such as lynching, cross-burning and Jim Crow segregation.

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In the absence of those more blatant and incontrovertible examples of racism, many people think that the racism that may exist is the result of the random acts of a few bad apples.

But in this post-civil rights era racism has not disappeared. It has merely been transformed by colorblind practices that preclude us from noticing or talking explicitly about racism. By making conversations about race and racism taboo, colorblindness can mask the myriad ways that race and racism function today.

Modern racism is reflected in everyday behaviors in the form of microaggressions, e.g., verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights, snubs, insults, intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages that can have a detrimental racial effect and can remain virtually invisible in a colorblind society.

Such behaviors can go undetected in part because of their subtlety. They allow the modern racist to argue they have no bearing on race whatsoever.

When one juvenile court judge stated he wouldn’t tolerate discrimination from anyone in his court, he was clearly expecting the racism would be tangible, easy to detect, not everyday behaviors from everyone in juvenile court, reflected in the differential application of policies and procedures and passed from one decision-point to the next.

In this way bias that is deeply entrenched in cultural norms of the agency and society can persist, virtually without notice.

Racism reflected in patterns of racial discrimination in every social institution is caused by more than the random acts of a few “bad apples.” Instead, it comes from the collective acts of individuals whose decisions are consistent with biases that are widely held throughout society, even by well-meaning people.

What is implicit bias?

According to the National Center for State Courts, “implicit bias is the bias in judgment and/or behavior that results from subtle cognitive processes (e.g., implicit attitudes and implicit stereotypes) that often operate below conscious awareness and without intention.” Explicit bias “reflects the attitudes or beliefs that one endorses at a conscious level.”

People make automatic associations between individuals and their stereotypical group characteristics due to implicit biases. We are inundated daily by messages throughout popular culture, e.g., news media, talk shows, reality TV, political speeches, comedy acts, movies, textbooks and jokes, that promote stereotypical images of all race and ethnic groups.

When I ask practitioners across the country about stereotypes, regardless of whether they live in Orange County, California, or Memphis, Tennessee, they recite the same stereotypes: Native Americans are alcoholics, blacks are criminals, Asians are smart and Mexicans are undocumented.

On a conscious level, we would avoid generalizing about groups in this way, but because implicit biases operate on an unconscious level, we can be caught off-guard by these stereotypes, which affect our daily decision-making.

The reason disparities in decision-making can go unnoticed is because biased decision-making creates a vicious cycle: In youth-serving systems, the more consistently decisions match the stereotypes, the more they are replicated within the agency and society in general; the more correct and natural the decisions appear; the less scrutiny they will undergo, and the more likely the outcomes — good or bad — will be used as the basis for later decisions.

Biases in decision-making have the potential to inform and therefore distort decisions at each step along the way. In this way biases and corresponding decisions become a normal aspect of agency and societal culture. The stereotypes that associate blacks with criminality and whites as basically neutral or good cause us not to notice or question the overrepresentation of blacks in juvenile justice and the relative underrepresentation of whites.

[Related: OP-ED: We All Have Responsibility to End Institutionalized Racism In Juvenile Justice Systems]

Decision-makers often don’t notice the discrepancies in their decisions because they think of themselves as well-meaning people who do not have racial animosity toward others.

But decision-makers in every youth-serving system are susceptible to bias that contributes to disproportionality because:

  1. racism doesn’t (necessarily) show malice;
  2. racist attitudes and actions are often unintended;
  3. racist attitudes can be unconscious, and
  4. modern racism occurs in the form of microaggressions.

Racism doesn’t show malice

Individuals think that because they don’t feel any racial animosity toward another group, they are not biased. The assumption that teachers, social workers, judges, police and probation officers are unbiased must be challenged because even individuals who “claim no prejudice” against blacks (or people of color in general) “discriminate in subtle but consequential ways.”

Racist attitudes can be unintended

According to colorblind ideology, the litmus test for racism is intentionality. Asserting that statements or actions can’t be racist unless they were “intended” as such will protect even the most obvious racist actions. In fact even though people don’t intend to be racist or are unaware of their biases, their actions can have a racial effect.

We all have unconscious biases

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of contemporary racism is unconscious or implicit bias. Our implicit biases will affect our decision-making whether we realize it or not. It affects our perceptions, the way we interpret the facts and the language we use to describe the “facts.” Anyone can be affected by bias; teachers, judges, law enforcement, probation officers, hospital staff, etc. Despite our best intentions, “few can escape the cultural and cognitive forces that promote racial bias.”

Racism in institutions occurs in the form of microaggressions and rarely as blatant and incontrovertible acts of discrimination.

How implicit bias can preserve systems of inequality

Race and ethnic stratification that existed prior to the civil rights movement persists today, more than 30 years after the historic laws of racial exclusion were ostensibly eliminated. This is true in part because implicit bias distorts how facts are interpreted, resulting in vastly dissimilar outcomes in identical circumstances.

Implicit biases can distort the assessment of a youth’s delinquency, dangerousness and their risk of reoffending. That can result in the detention of one youth for the identical offense for which another was released. In child welfare, white and black children with identical risk factors have different outcomes: White children are more likely to receive family in-home services and black children are more likely to be removed and placed in foster care.

In hospitals and emergency rooms, the attitude of the mother can be perceived as evidence of risk to the child. White families are expected to advocate on behalf of their children but advocacy by black parents can easily be perceived according to stereotypes, e.g., aggressive, hostile and “poor parenting skills.”

These stereotypes and corresponding implicit biases can cause child welfare and hospital staff to judge black parents as uncooperative with decision-makers and therefore working against the best interest of their children. When decision-makers perceive families or youth as uncooperative, that perception is likely to be encoded into case notes, affidavits and court records.

Racially coded language recorded in reports are shared and passed from one decision point to another within and between systems. Judges have stated that as they became more aware of implicit bias they could identify how language in court reports signify race.

For example, in cases where decision-makers can use the benefit of the doubt to render a decision involving drug use, a white mother is often reported as having “no drug involvement,” whereas a black mother is reported as “mother alleges” or “mother reports no drug involvement.” It is easy to see how the use of racially coded language creates bias at one decision point that gets passed to another.

Based upon the choice of words, one mother has essentially been cleared of suspicion of drug involvement while another is placed under greater scrutiny and will have a hurdle to overcome. Bias encoded in language becomes the baseline for decision-making at every subsequent decision point and will impact how children and their families are perceived and therefore how they are served within systems.

Because implicit bias can easily go undetected, usual practices that appear neutral to race must be examined for their potential to promote and mask biases.

How implicit bias interacts, compounds within, across youth-serving systems

Implicit bias can:

  1. Inform discretionary decision-making, assessments of risk and reoffending, and how sentences and adjudication are determined.
  2. Result in the differential application of policies and procedures; for example, identical offenses can be perceived and managed differently due to differences in perception caused by implicit biases.
  3. Contribute to how discretionary laws and policies are applied and enforced, such as arresting preschool children who are having tantrums and labeling their age-appropriate behaviors “outbursts of violence.”
  4. Affect the language we “choose” and language we read in reports and affidavits, e.g., labeling white mothers as “upset” and black mothers as “angry” in identical circumstances. Bias in the use of language can affect decisions resulting in detention in juvenile justice or removal or reunification in child welfare.
  5. Inform ambiguous charges of delinquency such as willful defiance (bad attitude, rolling eyes, using profanity), or discretionary charges of low-level offenses like jaywalking or indecent exposure (e.g., sagging pants), which can be the reason some youth have increased contact with the system while others who commit similar offenses do not.

Rita Cameron Wedding, Ph.D., is the chair of the department of Women’s Studies and a professor of Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies at Sacramento State University. Her curriculum “Implicit Bias: Impact on Decision-Making,” has been used to train judges, public defenders, practitioners in child welfare, juvenile justice, law enforcement and educators since 2005. As faculty member for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, she has trained judges at court improvement initiatives in 40-plus states. She has provided expert testimony before the U.S. Commission on Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. Email her at

More related articles:

OP-ED: Systemic Racism Overwhelms Our Culture

OP-ED: Fraternity Chant Shows How Racism Infects Organization

Listen to the White Southerner: Zero Tolerance in Schools Is Racist

Racial Disparities Persist Even as School Suspensions Decrease, Federal Data Shows

School classroom in Japanese high school

WASHINGTON — Out-of-school suspensions dropped 20 percent nationally in recent years, but students of color and students with disabilities are still more likely to face harsh discipline than their peers, according to new federal data.

The Department of Education said Tuesday the drop in suspensions from the 2011-12 to 2013-14 school years shows more schools are finding alternative ways to address nonviolent student behavior.

hub_arrow_2-01But sharp disparities endure in the results of the 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection, which covers 50 million students in nearly every public school and school district in the country.

The data showed black students were more likely to be suspended than their white peers, a trend that begins in preschool and lasts through high school. They also were more likely to be expelled and to be referred to law enforcement.

In addition, students with disabilities were more likely to be suspended than their peers and disproportionately restrained or placed in seclusion.

"The CRDC data are more than numbers and charts — they illustrate in powerful and troubling ways disparities in opportunities and experiences that different groups of students have in our schools,” said Education Secretary John B. King in a news release.

Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the civil rights organization Advancement Project, said the data illustrate “persistent racism” in schools.

“Schools must change policies that allow for subjective decisions on the basis of race and move toward police-free learning spaces,” she said.

School discipline policies are an area of concern for juvenile justice advocates. When students face suspensions and expulsions, they are more likely to drop out of school and end up in the juvenile justice system, a phenomenon known as “school pushout” or the “school to prison pipeline.”

The survey’s findings include:

  • black children in preschool are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers;
  • black students in kindergarten through 12th grade are almost four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers;
  • black students are 2.3 times more likely to be referred to law enforcement or have a school-related arrest as their white peers;
  • students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to have one or more suspensions than their peers without disabilities; and
  • students with disabilities in kindergarten through 12th grade who are served by Individuals with Disabilities Education Act  (11 percent) are more than twice as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as students without disabilities.

The Education Department highlighted its topline findings in a “first look” report with additional releases expected throughout the summer. In August, the survey data will be available in a data reporting tool.