For the past few days, I’ve been flooded with emails, phone calls, and blog posts about the Shaquanda Cotton case. To my suprise, many people have been highly critical of my stance on the issue. Let me take this opportunity to further explain my position.
- Contrary to many people’s remarks, I do not approve of Shaquanda’s behavior. Regardless of the situation, it is highly innappropriate to push, shove, or otherwise attack a hall monitor. As a consequence of her actions, she should receive an appropriate punishment. What would constitute an appropriate punishment? Suspension, probation, community service, and therapy, rather than confinement in a facility for the most “dangerous, incorrigible, or chronic” youth offenders, seem to be adequate punishment.
- Several people have accurately pointed out that Shaquanda was not sentenced to seven years, but rather an indeterminate sentence of up to seven years. While this is true, her sentence is nonetheless problematic. First, as I’ve mentioned earlier, any length of time for this offense is excessive based on the sentences given in recent cases. Many have claimed that the case of the White girl who received probation for arson is irrelevant due to the nuances of both cases. While this may be true (although I don’t think it is), Black people in that town consistently receive longer sentences than Whites for the same crimes. At some point we have to acknowledge the racism inherent in such a practice.
- Even though Shaquanda would have been released as soon as she completed her rehabilitative program, prisons make it very difficult to satisfy the conditions for parole. In addition to subjective assessments by abusive correctional officers (Paris, TX is under investigation for sexual abuse to female inmates), Shaquanda had to navigate the dilemmas of prison life that are faced by all inmates on a daily basis. For example, what do you do when an inmate punches you in the face? Do you fight back and get a disciplinary write-up that extends your sentence or do nothing and be abused for the rest of your sentence? Such circumstances, which occur on a daily basis in correctional facilities largely due to administrative indifference, make it difficult to show “good behavior.”
- It has been reported that the judge had no choice but to incarcerate Shaquanda because her mother refused to cooperate with a proposed probation plan. Such reports, however, conveniently ignore the details of her mother’s resistance to the probation. They also ignore the mother’s public activism against racial injustice in the school system. To be sure, her challenge to the racial order of the state contributed to the judge’s decision. In fact, during the sentencing, the judge mentioned her mother’s numerous claims to the Department of Justice about racism in the school system. Based on people close to the situation, this was punishment for both Shaquanda and her mother.
- Instead of framing her as a concerned parent-activist, Shaquanda’s mother has constructed as someone so irresponsible that prison was a better rehabilitative alternative. In reality, the judge offered probation under the condition that Shaquanda be released to someone other than her mother. Such a deal, particuarly given Shaquanda’s clean criminal record and the nature of the crime, was unfair and unneccesary. If anything, such a deal should have been offered to the white girl who burned down her parents’ house. After all, she clearly can’t be controlled by her family.
- Although Shaquanda Cotton is the poster child for this most recent protest, she actually represents thousands of children who have been unfairly treated by the criminal justice and public education systems in the town. As a result of our struggle, 400 youth are being released from prison because they were excessively sentence. Also, the Department of Education has begun an investigation of racist school disciplinary policies, which have disproportionately affected Black students. Most important, authorities are set to launch a federal investigation into sex abuses in the town’s prison system. Even if you don’t support Shaquanda Cotton 100%, it’s hard not to see the value in this struggle.