Nearly 5,000 Mississippi children have been charged as adults in the last 25 years, three-quarters of them black, thanks to laws granting wide discretion that gets exercised against black children with far greater severity, Reveal reports. In a story that traces the history of such laws and focuses on a case involving a 13-year-old who used a BB gun to rob a teenager of a cellphone, Reveal explains that in Mississippi, any child over the age of 13 who is arrested for a crime involving a weapon goes directly into the adult system.
Under a system similar to 25 others states’, which Mississippi calls original jurisdiction, defense lawyers can ask a judge to transfer a case to youth court, where proceedings are sealed from the public and the maximum punishment is juvenile detention. Not all cases qualify; for example, youths over 15 charged with gun crimes. Reveal obtained the state’s database of all crimes for the past 25 years and found that less than 4 percent of the cases diverted to adult court involve murder and rape. Most stem from a handful of charges: drug use, burglary, larceny and armed robbery. Black children serve significantly longer sentences than white children in the adult system. And white kids are more than twice as likely to get a plea bargain that’s known as a “non-adjudication of guilt.” That’s when a judge, acting on a prosecutor’s recommendation, will withhold ruling on a guilty plea if the child completes “a program of good behavior.”