Race, Society, and Sentencing

Race, Society, and Sentencing

Author: Josh Valdez


In “Race, Society, and Sentencing,” Josh Valdez, a sociology graduate at Brigham Young University- Idaho, argues that because of racial political views, such as being “tough-on-crime” more mixed race juveniles are being tried and sentenced in adult courts. Such juveniles are being held to adult standards and therefore receiving adult mandatory minimum sentences. Valdez focuses on the effects of lifetime incarceration and argues that justice is not blind, but manipulated by society turn points. 



Evan Miller, a teenager was convicted of murdering Cole Coleman, by beating him and setting Coleman’s trailer to fire. (Rhodes, 2015, p. 1002) Miller was initially tried as a juvenile, but state prosecutors were able to petition and change the judicial sentencing process to prosecute Miller as an adult. This resulted in a life sentence without the possibility of parole or in other words, Miller, at age fourteen, will never be able to be released again from prison.  The question arises as to why the state prosecutors petitioned and changed the judicial system from juvenile to adult court. The concern lies within our justice system being that justice is not always blind when it comes to factors of race and ethnicity. According to an article by the American Civil Liberties Union, commonly abbreviated as the ACLU, report in 2012: “Black people are jailed on drug charges ten times more often than white people are. Black people are also three times more likely to be arrested.” This type of discrimination is not only with blacks, but also any of the other minority groups such as Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans within the adult and juvenile justice systems. (Nieves, 2008)  Although laws and sentencing guidelines are built to make justice blind, the factor of a juvenile’s race and ethnicity determines whether or not a life sentence without parole is given to those juveniles who commit a violent crime.

Youth of color are responsible for the majority of the transfer cases from the juvenile court system to the adult court system. (Young, 2000) This is due to the lack of private counsel from attorneys and justice workers given to white juveniles and so absent in cases involving youth of color. Because of this lack of private counsel there has been a result of disproportionality of youth of color being charged with a life without parole conviction that is only available to give in an adult court. In 2012, after a global consensus where it was decided that juveniles of all race cannot be responsible or held to the same laws and standards as adults. (Bentley, 2012) Our society advocates for being tough-on-crime, however, juveniles should not be tried in adult courts where a life without parole sentence is a possibility. The United States continues to allow and accept such sentencing but do not see the benefits and abilities of juvenile facilities where successful rehabilitation and reintegration of mixed race juvenile offenders happens on the daily.

Since this global consensus in 2012, we have seen campaigning and advocates of life sentences to be “tough-on-crime” resulting in developing policies and institutions designed to limit options and hold judges and attorneys to abide by sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentencing. This has not only affected incarcerated adults leading to mass incarceration, but these standards have also brought an imbalance to the juvenile justice system by holding young offenders to these same “one size fits all” sentencing standards. This push of campaigning and advocating “tough-on-crime” has been unevenly represented, being that we see such an increase in Latino and Black racial presence in correctional facilities, while the white racial groups remain constant. Anthony Kennedy, a Supreme Court Justice, expresses his concern about the imbalance of the juvenile system, especially when it comes to mixed race juveniles by stating, “The tough-on-crime movement has finally gone too far that it's over-reaching [has] crossed the boundary into unconstitutional cruelty.” (Steinberg, 2008)

Now because of such focus on “Black Lives Matter” and prejudice acts against Hispanics, society might argue that the sole problem of the justice system is racial discrimination against secondary minority groups. However, being that there are attorneys and judges within the juvenile system we see this type of discrimination against Caucasian juveniles as well. Such had been the situation for Erik Jensen, Caucasian, seventeen year old teenager, who had received a life without parole sentence for first degree murder. His friend, Nathan Ybanez had just moved to Colorado where he and Erik Jensen began to play together in a rock band.  Nathan and Erik had been frequently been together at the Jensen residence where Erik’s parents noticed something troubling about Nathan.  They asked a lot about Nathan’s family life, where often they received bleak answers and became significantly concerned about Nathan when he refused to go to their high school homecoming dance. From then on, Erik decided to keep a close eye on his friend Nathan and soon found out that Nathan was being physically and sexually abused by his mother. One night, when Erik had given Nathan a ride home, Nathan had instructed Erik to wait in the car and to come get him if he was not back in twenty minutes. Erik waiting the twenty minutes and not seeing Nathan went inside the Ybanez residence where he witnessed Nathan beat and strangle to death his mom, Julie Ybanez. Shocked Erik collapsed onto the carpet in the front room, Nathan instructed him to help him clean up the body, which he did resulting in the sentence that he received. We see this as an example of this change of society when the Columbine shooting in Colorado took place resulting in a social push to be stricter on specifically young white adults such as with Erik and Nathan.

We would have more success in both rehabilitation and reintegration of these young individuals of all races, if we would give them a goal to work towards.  As a society, we can bring a brighter future to a child who maybe has never seen the potential they are capable of.  With the right programs of prevention and the right programs behind bars, we can change a hardened life slowly into a capable and responsible life. Young offenders such as Erik Jensen and Nathan Ybanez would have the chance to learn from their mistakes and work toward their freedom.  I am in no way dismissing or diminishing the crime that Nathan and Erik committed but I am advocating that we give a solution to a nationwide problem that will have an end result, rehabilitation and correction of all juveniles.  

According to Margaret Shippen, a writer for the Juvenile Correctional Professional Development Department, reports that currently the “United States spends more than five billion dollars a year on juvenile correction facilities.” (Shippen, 2014) Many criminologists desire a change in the way that we have the juvenile system set up. Currently the Juvenile Justice System expanding facilities to house not only short term juvenile offenders but also long term to life sentenced offenders as well not any of these juveniles being racially segregated nor discriminated. Julia Dahl, a contributing editor for the Crime Report, reports, that “not only do most juvenile detention centers not employ any type of counselor, especially in facilities where there are dominate black juvenile inmates, but many are also caught up in scandals involving sexual and physical abuse. The key to keeping juveniles out of the justice system is to implement early intervention programs.” (Dahl, 2006, p.30)

If we look at the relation between how many juveniles are serving life without the chance of parole. We can see a major diverse group leading us to think that perhaps the reason we have such sentencing is performing a function for society in either controlling or “teaching” these different cultures who might have a different set of rules in their own house that conflict with the rules and laws we have in society. If we looked at the attached graph description we can see two important things.

A line graph depicting the proportional representation of Caucasian, Aboriginal and Black offenders over a 10 year period (from fiscal year 2003-2004 to 2011-2012). The graph includes both incarcerated offenders and offenders in the community. The trend line for Caucasian offenders declines over the 10 year period, from approximately 70% to just under 60%. Over the same period the proportion of Black offenders moderately increases from approximately 5% to almost 10%, and the proportion of Aboriginal offenders increases from just under 20% to more than 20% of offenders. (Corporate Reporting System, 2014)

First, that the Caucasian inmate population is declining, but the other races are increasing. There is a demand in society for racial equality in the jail system as we see more of a culture mix in the United States.

Knowing that there is such change going on throughout the criminal justice system is concerning as we will see the effects of such over time. When it is too late to stop it. There has been hope as awareness to such life sentencing to juveniles have been more political Frances Done, chair of the Youth Justice Board, has said: "As the numbers in [youth] custody have gone down, the proportion of those from black and ethnic backgrounds has gone up. We don't get the view that this is about deliberate discrimination but because of practices that have not been thought through." (Bowcott, 2011)

I would continue to hope to see such changes within our juvenile justice system giving hope to teenager such as Erik Jensen and Nathan Ybanez will be able to have a future second chance.  As a society we cannot let this idealism of racial equality within the jail system perform a function for our racial inequality.



Works Citied

Anon. n.d. “Racial Disparities In Criminal Justice.” American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved March 26, 2016 (https://www.aclu.org/issues/mass-incarceration/racial-disparities-criminal-justice).

Bowcott, Owen, James Ball, and Simon Rogers. 2011. “Race Variation in Jail Sentences, Study Suggests.” The Guardian. Retrieved April 6, 2016 (http://www.theguardian.com/law/2011/nov/25/ethnic-variations-jail-sentences-study).

Bentley, Matthew. “Prison Voices: Matthew Bentley: Irredeemable At 14?” American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved March 26, 2016 (https://www.aclu.org/podcast/prison-voices-matthew-bentley-irredeemable-14?redirect=criminal-law-reform/prison-voices-matthew-bentley-irredeemable-14).

Chammah, Maurice and Julia Dahl. 2015. “Rape In the American Prison.” The Atlantic, February 25.

Corporate Reporting System. 2014. 10 Year Offender Population Trends.

Nieves, Evelyn. “Race And Juvenile Justice System.” in Justice on Trial. Washington, D.C.: The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Rhodes, Tracy A. 2015. “Cruel And Unusual Before and After 2012: Miller v. Alabama Must Apply Retroactively.” Maryland Law Review 74(4):4–15.

Shippen, Margaret. 2009. “The Costs Of Confinement: Why Good Juvenile Justice Policies Make Good Fiscal Sense.” The Justice Policy Institute.

Steinberg, Laurence. 2008. “Introducing The Issue.” Juvenile Justice 18(2):5–14.

Young, Malcolm C. and Jenni Gainsborough. 2000. “Prosecuting Juveniles In Adult Court An Assessment of Trends and Consequences.” The Sentencing Project.

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