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More Jail Time Than the Man Who Killed Her Son? The Criminalization of Black Mothers

Women of color are being aggressively prosecuted for supposed transgressions they'd committed while trying to raise their children.

Raquel Nelson, who was convicted of second-degree vehicular manslaughter after her four-year-old son was killed by a drunk driver, will not be going to jail after all. On Tuesday a judge sentenced Nelson to 12 months of probation and 40 hours of community service, and offered her a new trial, which she’s  since decided to pursue. She faced three years in prison.

It was a stunning move in a dramatic case that’s captured national headlines and for criminal justice reform advocates, exemplified the racialized impacts of aggressive prosecutions.

On April 10, 2010 Nelson’s son A.J. Newman was killed by a drunk driver while the family attempted to jaywalk across a busy street. They’d just gotten out at a bus stop and were out later than Nelson would have liked after having missed their first bus. Their home was directly across a four-lane street and like many other passengers, they decided to cross directly to their home. The nearest crosswalk was more than three tenths of a mile away from the bus stop. While waiting at a divider, A.J. slipped out of his mom’s grasp and into the street. Nelson and her other daughter followed, and they were all hit by a drunk driver careening down the road.

The driver of the van, Jerry Guy, who had two previous hit-and-run convictions on his record, fled the scene. A.J. died. Guy later pleaded guilty and confessed that he’d been drinking that day. He served  six months of a five-year sentence.

After the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article raising alarm about the  dangers of jaywalking, instead of, say, the  dangers that poor urban design pose to transit-dependent families, the solicitor general decided to prosecute Nelson for endangering her children.

Earlier this month an  all-white jury of middle class folks who  admitted they had limited experience taking public transportation in the area found Nelson guilty of second-degree vehicular manslaughter and reckless endangerment.

It was just the latest in a year of headline-making reports of mothers, all of them single parents, and all of them women of color, who’d been aggressively prosecuted for supposed transgressions they’d committed while trying to raise their children.

In January, Ohio mom Kelley Williams-Bolar  was found guilty of a felony for using her father’s home address to enroll her daughters to a better out-of-district school. Williams-Bolar was charged with defrauding the local school system of $30,500. And in April, Connecticut mother Tanya McDowell was charged with larceny for “stealing” her son’s education when she enrolled him in a neighboring school district’s kindergarten. School officials say she “stole” more than $15,000 worth of education for her son.

Criminal justice reform advocates say these stories are hardly as rare as they might seem, and are not isolated incidents.

“I don’t think it’s that unusual,” said Inimai Chettiar, advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU. “It’s just unusual that we’re hearing about it.”

“We prosecute people for very low level crimes when there is no actual reason to,” Chettiar said of Nelson’s case. “We put people in prison for public safety, or from a punitive perspective or in an attempt to rehabilitate but she’s already been punished—she lost her son.”

“Putting her in prison isn’t going to make us any safer.”

Chettiar said that these sorts of prosecutions were symptomatic of a larger systemic problem where district attorneys are often publicly elected officials, and so tend to prosecute people based on what they perceive to be politically useful issues. Indeed, Nelson was charged only after the AJC article ran a story on Nelson’s family and pointed out that she had faced no punishment for her son’s death.

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