Demonstrations over the fight in Jena, La., in which six black teens beat a white classmate unconscious raises the question of whether the justice system generally treats minorities more harshly than it does whites, says the Christian Science Monitor. 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. Researchers are divided on whether race or other factors, such as poverty, are the driving factor.
“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, says the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. 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. In the late 1980s, black juveniles were six times more likely to be arrested for a violent crime than whites were, said a report from the U.S. Justice Department. By 2003, they were four times as likely as whites. 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.