No one knew.
When 25-year-old guard Keriana Alexcee found the body of Jaquin Thomas hanging in a New Orleans jail cell, she didn’t know that Thomas had been dead for more than 90 minutes. According to the Advocate, Alexcee had not been trained to check on Thomas every 15 minutes—as mandated by a federal consent decree. When she passed Jaquin’s cell earlier that evening and saw him writing, she had no idea that he was penning his suicide note.
Prison officials didn’t seem to know why Thomas wasn’t given his medication for a mental illness. The Times-Picayune reports that Thomas’ family couldn’t get answers to why the Orleans Justice Center, an adult jail, had only one deputy supervising 13 inmates on Jaquin’s tier. No one had any idea why Jaquin hanged himself, but Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office attorney Blake Arcuri assured everyone that it wasn’t because he had been “jumped” by other inmates who repeatedly stole his food.
On Oct. 17, 2016, when Jaquin Thomas committed suicide at the Orleans Justice Center, there was only one thing everyone knew.
He was 15 years old.
Jaquin was one of the thousands of black children under 18 who are quietly incarcerated in adult jails and prisons each year. Forty-seven percent of the youth transferred from juvenile courts to adult courts are black, despite the fact that black children make up approximately 14 percent of the total youth population, according to “The Color of Justice Transfer” a new report from the National Association of Social Workers.
The report highlights the enduring inequities in America’s criminal justice system, specifically the fact that black children and children of color are routinely tried, sentenced and incarcerated as adults, often as young as 14 years old.
In 2015, the latest year of data examined in the report, at least 75,900 youth were prosecuted as adults by the criminal justice system, of which 53 percent were black. So how does this happen? There are three primary ways:
- Statutory Exclusion: Four states—Georgia, Michigan, Texas and Wisconsin—have laws that allow 16- and 17-year-olds to be tried as adults for certain crimes. Four more—North Carolina, South Carolina, New York and Louisiana (where Jaquin Thomas was)—have recently passed laws to raise the age by 2019 or 2020. A few other states have laws that allow minors to be charged as adults for certain crimes.
- Judicial Waiver: Judges in 45 states and the District of Columbia have the discretion to unilaterally charge juveniles charged with certain crimes as adults.
- Prosecutorial Waiver: Twelve states and Washington, D.C. have laws that allow prosecutors to charge youth as adults.
These decisions have an immediate impact on children, the NASW notes, leaving youth without access to social workers, pediatric care, mental health specialists and education resources. Most adult facilities are not equipped to protect youthful offenders, which often causes juveniles in adult facilities to be remanded to some form of solitary confinement for their own protection. Even though the United Nations Human Rights Council ruled prolonged solitary confinement as torture in 2011, the ruling is not legally binding and often does not reach correctional facilities.
And while we know that these practices disproportionately affect black children, the truth is we don’t know how much it affects them. Of the 35 states who report their data on juvenile transfer, only 18 separate the data by race or ethnicity. But every state where data is available shows black children bear the brunt of this practice.
In Oregon where 15-year-olds can be tried as adults because of the state’s Measure 11 law (passed through a referendum), black children are 4 percent of the population but made up 15 percent of juveniles who were tried as adults in 2017. In fact, black teenagers in Oregon are 13.7 times more likely than their white counterparts to face a Measure 11 indictment.
In Missouri, while black children made up 14 percent of the population and 40 percent of juveniles charged with felonies in 2015, 72 percent of youth certified as adults were African American.
But of course, no state is as bad as Florida. In the Sunshine State, prosecutors have the discretion to charge youth as adults without a judge reviewing the decision. Because of this, black youth in Florida were 2.3 times more likely to receive an adult jail sentence versus supervision than white youth; black juveniles received sentences 7.8 times the length of their white counterparts who committed the same crimes.
The unilateral authority to send children into the adult criminals system is compounded by openly racist judges. The NASW’s report recounts the story of one judge who repeatedly displayed signs of prejudice:
It is also of note that in 2018, a Miami judge was suspended for using the word “moolie” (a shortened version of mulignan, a Sicilian slur referring to a black person) to describe a black defendant. He also called another man’s family and friends “thugs.” As a result, this judge was reassigned from criminal court to juvenile court, where he will have full discretion to transfer youth of any age.
Studies have shown that teachers punish black children disproportionately and adults view black children as older and less innocent than white kids the same age, so the pipeline of black children into America’s criminal justice system will continue unless we take active measures, including:
- Using legislation to address inequities: Iowa, Oregon, Connecticut, Minnesota and New Jersey are just a few of the states that have enacted legislation to study and measure the racial and ethnic impact of sentencing on minority children. These laws seek to reduce the disparities by overtly addressing the disproportionate sentencing of juveniles.
- Involving professionals in the decision to charge children as adults: Using social workers, psychologists and mental health professionals in the decision-making process can result in fewer children in the criminal justice system.
- Make the decisions more transparent: There needs to be a measure of oversight in the unilateral discretion of judges and prosecutors who decide to send minors to adult courts.
- Stop being racist: I mean ... as long as we’re listing solutions.
Jaquin Thomas is just one of many tragic cases of a child in an adult correctional facility. In July 2017, 17-year-old Neicey Fennel committed suicide after spending a year in a North Carolina detention center waiting to be tried as an adult. Kalief Browder spent three years in Rikers Island after being charged with stealing a backpack at 16. All three were effectively in solitary confinement before committing suicide; all three were in adult facilities.
And even before these black teenagers made their harrowing decisions, America’s criminal justice system had already decided their lives didn’t matter.