As I See It? 7-25
Sunday, January 4, 2009

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 

Pre-trial home detention for juveniles has sharply increased as a way to cut costs and deal with prison overcrowding. But there’s a giant loophole that allows juvenile killers to be released home, writes NAM contributor Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

LOS ANGELES, CA -- Jocelyn Mull, the mother of 18-year-old Eron Michael Mull, seethed when Los Angeles Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash said that it was "fairly uncommon" for youths charged with murder to be released. She was angered because she sat mute in court and watched as the confessed killer of her son, another 18-year-old African American, was allowed to go home.

The circumstances of Mull’s murder are grimly familiar. He was gunned down in a cross fire between two suspected gang rivals last January outside an after-hours party near Hollywood, Calif. Mull had no gang involvement, was a highly talented musician, and had scholarship offers from several universities.

Mull could easily have been another of the legions of nameless, faceless young black victims of chronic violence that has plagued Los Angeles and other big cities. Despite the plunge in crime, violence and murder rates nationally and in California, homicide continues to rank at or near the top as one of the main causes of death for young black males. In Los Angeles and other major cities, gang murders continue to be a major cause of fear and rage in poor black and Latino communities.

Mull’s mother’s anger over the killer being sent home pending disposition of his case would likely have drawn a momentary touch of public attention, sympathy and then just as quickly been forgotten. But this was different. Mull’s killer did not commit a petty, non-violent crime, but potentially a first-degree murder. He has suspected gang ties and is accused of prior handgun brandishing.

In many states, including California, teens much younger than Mull’s killer who have been charged with murder and accused of prior gun use are routinely jailed for long stretches in juvenile or adult jails, tried as adults, convicted, and given lengthy sentences. In the past, some have received death sentences and in a few cases been executed. The Supreme Court narrowly outlawed juvenile executions in March 2005.

Mull’s killer would not suffer that fate and that’s a good thing. But that still didn’t ease the personal pain of Mull’s mother and the deep sense that a grievous legal wrong had been committed by the court’s allowing her son’s confessed killer to remain out of jail. And then adding to her anguish by handling the case with kid glove, snail-paced lethargy.

This is hardly unique. According to reports from multiple state agencies, and a 10 year longitudinal analysis of juvenile detention programs by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, since the late 1980s, home detention for juveniles, awaiting trial or a court disposition of their case and accused of even serious felony offenses, has sharply increased. This is in part a cost-saving measure, and in part a way to reduce overcrowding in America’s bulging jails and juvenile detention centers. Juveniles sentenced or confined to home detention wear ankle bracelets that emit an electronic signal sent to a remote command center whenever an offender ventures outside the home or other confined area set by the courts. In theory, if the signal goes off that’s a potential violation; if it’s verified, then police are notified and the offender can be arrested.

But there’s a giant loophole. Police are often not notified if a juvenile is under home detention and are only aware of it when a detainee violates home detention rules and they make an arrest. Home detention violations are not uncommon. There have been frequent reports of juveniles committing or accused of crimes while supposedly confined to their homes.

Still, home detention is a sensible and humane penal method for dealing with non-violent, low-risk juveniles and adults. Mull’s killer, though, hardly fits that bill.

Jocelyn Mull is no lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key crusader. She is a dedicated educator and community activist. She’s well aware of the well-documented gaping racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. Young black males are more likely than young whites who commit violent crimes to be jailed, to languish in preventive detention, be tried as adults, convicted and then warehoused in adult prisons for long sentences.

Mull’s sole concern is that the tiny cracks -- created by legal sloppiness, a technicality, laxity, or expediency -- that permit young men who kill to at least, for a time, evade justice, be filled. She is campaigning to prevent the use of house detention for violent felony cases. Until that change happens, the tacit message is that when young blacks kill other young blacks, black life is deemed cheap and devalued. In her emotional plea, Mull repeatedly noted that her son’s killer would spend the holidays at his home. Her son won’t. And that’s not justice. Home detention is clearly an important, and necessary, penal tool. Just not for killers.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).


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