It's time to talk about the role of race in juvenile justice

The death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of shooter George Zimmerman have generated renewed conversations about the role of race in the criminal justice system.

As the national organization working to end sentences of life without parole for children, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth has a responsibility to speak honestly about the problems within the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems. The very practice of sentencing children to die in prison was born during a period of heightened fear and racism exacerbated by the since disproven superpredator theory, which projected a rising tide of young people who would engage in violent criminal activity without regard for human life or consequences.   

On average across the country, black youth are serving life without parole at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youth, according to Human Rights Watch. In several states, black youth are at least 18 times more likely to be serving a sentence of life without parole than white youth.

A sentence of life-without-parole is a sentence to die in prison. Imposing this irrevocable sentence on a child is a declaration that he or she is a throwaway person.   In addition, we know that homicide is the leading cause of death among young black men, ages 15-34 according to the Centers for Disease Control, yet gun control has yet to be addressed in a meaningful way. These statistics certainly raise the question of how our society assigns value to the lives of black and brown children compared to those of whites. 

Many have compared Trayvon’s death to that of Emmitt Till, who was in 1955 beaten to death, shot in the head and thrown into a river in Money, Mississippi after he was accused of whistling at a white woman. Although two white men were positively identified as the assailants during a trial, an all-white jury found the men not guilty. Despite this, Till’s death had a major impact on the movement for racial equality after the world saw images of his boated, scarred body in his casket.

Whether or not we agree with this comparison, we must use this opportunity to ensure that important conversations about racial disparities throughout the juvenile and criminal justice systems– and specifically as they relate to life without parole for children – can take place. We don’t claim to have the answers, but we at the CFSY commit to pushing for data, strategies and solutions.