Spare the Prison, Spoil the Child
The sobs of 14-year-old Lionel Tate and the anguished wails of his relatives echoed through the courtroom when Broward County Judge Joel Lazarus sentenced Tate to life without parole.
Tate is thought to be the youngest person to be hit with such a sentence in the history of the United States.
The jury rejected the defense claim that Tate was trying to do a WWF imitation of the wrestling icons Hulk Hogan and The Rock when he brutally beat six-year-old Tiffany Eunick to death.
Nearly everyone involved in the case thought Tate should be severely punished for the murder. But no one, including the prosecutor, expected or wanted such a savage sentence.
Both prosecution and defense instantly called on the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, to modify the sentence. Bush promised to have his clemency board -- which consists of himself and members of his cabinet --- ponder the request.
Modifying Tate's sentence seems both an easy and politically advantageous call. Civil right leaders are still fuming at Bush for ramming through legislation that dumped affirmative action and imposed a school voucher system.
In addition, they angrily accuse him of playing a major behind-the- scenes role in the alleged vote fraud that helped deliver the White House to his brother George.
And Governor Bush has said repeatedly in recent speeches and in meetings with black leaders that he wants to heal the terrible racial wounds.
But it is not difficult to see why he might reject the pleas for mercy.
A steady bloat of newspaper and television reports of drive-by shootings, drug shootouts, and gang wars, most of them involving young blacks, as well as murderous rampages at Columbine and Santana High Schools, where the perpetrators were young whites, confirms the terrified feeling that many Americans have that young people -- especially young black males -- are out of control.
They are convinced that teen violence has spawned a new class of youthful "super predators" and that the juvenile justice system is far too easy on them.
But the notion of juveniles running wild is a myth. According to recent FBI crime figures, the rates for murder and assault among teenagers have plunged since 1993, and most sharply among black teens.
Yet politicians have overreacted badly to the public panic. Since 1994, 34 states have loosened if note eliminated laws requiring juveniles be tried and sentenced in juvenile courts. In California, an initiative passed by a whopping margin last March gives prosecutors virtually unlimited power to try teens as adults.
Tate's sentence is extreme by any standard, but it is no aberration. Latino and black young people have been hit hardest by the crackdown on juveniles. A 1990 Florida study revealed that black teens are treated far more harshly than white teens who commit the same crimes. Similar differences were found in Ohio and Texas.
These gross disparities in sentencing are particularly shocking in California. The Justice Policy Institute, which is concerned with reforming the criminal justice system, reported last year that a Latino youth is six times more likely to be tried in adult courts, and sentenced to prison, than a white youth, even when the crimes are similar.
For blacks the figure is even more appalling. They are 12 times more likely to be tried as adults and 18 times more likely to be sentenced the state's juvenile prison system. (The report also found that nearly 60% of those sentenced to state prisons are from the 7.5% of the state's population that is black.)
The criminal justice system's harsh treatment of young blacks, like Tate, fuels the suspicion of many blacks that judges, prosecutors and probation officers bend way over backwards to give young white offenders the benefit of the doubt -- to search hard for extenuating factors, to heed recommendations for leniency -- and far less willing to brand, and treat, them as dangerous habitual offender, even when they commit violent crimes.
Tate may be a near-textbook example of this. Judge Lazarus disputed the defense claim that it had urged him to hold a hearing to determine if Tate was competent to stand for trial as an adult -- or at all. But he did have the option to hold such a hearing, and he did not.
The case of Lionel Tate is tragic proof that when young people, especially black young people, commit ugly crimes the courts will be merciless. Tate's sobs and the anguished wails of relatives will not do much to change that.