Excerpted from Chapter 1: “The Night Swimmers”
It looked like a twenty-first-century Norman Rockwell painting moving toward me in the narrow hallway.
The tall, black-robed judge walked toward his chambers, a wide, mischievous smile on his tanned and handsome Cuban face. His salt-and-pepper beard matched the hair that rimmed his balding head. His arms enveloped three black boys who were grinning and giggling, pulling on the judge’s hands to make him move faster….
I guessed them to be about nine or ten years old. They had huge brown eyes, gleaming white teeth, and close-cropped Afros. Each wore jeans with a belt and a neat plaid shirt with a collar. Well dressed for juvenile court.
“Javaris and Javon are brothers, and Deangelo is their cousin,” Judge Quesada explained. “They live with their grandmother, who brought them to court, and right now they are giving her fits.”
“What have they done?” I asked.
“Well, I call them the ‘night swimmers.’ It seems that when Grandma goes to bed, the three of them sneak out a window, hop on their bikes and ride down to the Pier in St. Petersburg-about a three-mile ride in the dark. They hide their bikes, take a leap into Tampa Bay, have themselves a nice swim, and ride home to Grandma’s house about midnight.”
Javon and Deangelo continued to smile. Javaris buried his face in Frank’s robe.
“When they first came to court a few months ago, they didn’t even reach the top of the podium. They had to step to the side so I could see them. Police gave them a few warnings, followed them home to make sure they were safe, and woke up Grandma. But they continued to slip out the window and head for the Pier. The older two were charged with misdemeanor trespass; they let the little guy off. I ordered them all away from the Pier, put in a strict curfew, and here they are again….
Frank shooed them into his chambers toward the sailing ship and looked back at me. His eyes were misty.
“I’ll be out of this division in a year, and I’ll miss these little fellows, with their midnight swims and stupid misdemeanor charges,” he said. “But if you stay here, you’ll be seeing them through their teenage years. If they’re slipping out of windows and disobeying Grandma now, God only knows what’s in their future….”
Over the next seven years, I did see Javon, Deangelo, and Javaris often in court, with their weary grandmother and various other relatives; sometimes their mother but never a father. They grew taller and more muscular, clearly visible over the podium. They sported wide, bushy Afros and long, straggly dreadlocks. They wore hip-hop T-shirts and also tees printed with the faces of dead friends or relatives. As they grew older, Javon and Deangelo dressed in oversized pants – “saggers” – falling to midthigh, boxer shorts screaming for attention. Javaris was different, always neatly dressed in belted jeans and a plaid shirt….
Javon and Javaris became involved in a series of car thefts and house burglaries. Deangelo was convicted twice of selling crack cocaine. When placed on probation, they broke curfew, and all three tested positive for marijuana….
Now Javaris stood before me about to be committed again, for felony car theft and selling cocaine. He would be locked up for about two years in a facility just short of an adult prison. He might benefit from the education and counseling provided, or he might become a smarter, tougher criminal….
Javaris didn’t say a word. He stood silent and alone. None of his relatives was with him in court. I wanted to hug him rather than sentence him.
“Javaris is a good kid, but we can never find him,” said his probation officer, a large, kindly black man, his hand resting on the youth’s shoulder.
“He’s a smart kid, but…” his teacher added, summarizing his truancies, suspensions, and disruptions in school.
“He’s a drug dealer and a thief,” the victim in the front row interrupted, “and his family doesn’t give a damn.”
Family? What family? A bed or a couch at his grandmother’s or aunt’s house?
“He’s basically been raising himself,” the psychologist said at the podium, “roaming the streets at night, occasionally at school, finding his own food, violating curfew. Once in a while, a neglect report is investigated, but Javaris returns home, and the investigation is closed. Teens aren’t given a high priority. Javaris hasn’t had many successes….”
“I’m sorry, Javaris,” I said after sentencing. “I can’t excuse your crimes, but somehow I think that we failed you, too. Your family failed you, the system failed you.”
His sad eyes met mine, and he still didn’t speak when handcuffed and led away.
Disproportionate minority contact (DMC) is the elephant in my courtroom. Nobody mentions it, yet twice a week when I take the bench in delinquency court, I face a courtroom full of black faces. Most of the kids put on probation are black, as are the vast majority of kids committed or charged as adults.
It’s true that more minorities live in the downtown and midtown areas of St. Petersburg that my court serves, but even so, the numbers are disproportionate. While blacks represent 30 percent of the population in my particular jurisdiction of south St. Petersburg, black kids make up 70 percent of my caseload.
Why? No one ever asks.
“A conversation about race and racism is so difficult,” explained Dr. Rita Cameron-Wedding, professor of ethnic studies at California State University in Sacramento. “Color blindness means we’re not supposed to talk about race, as if it’s a level playing field.” The professor spoke to a large group of juvenile judges and other professionals at a national juvenile justice conference in March 2008.
“Yet if you don’t notice race and gender, you don’t notice anything else. Unless your dining room table is totally multi-cultural, multi-age, multi-gender, race does matter.”
Dr. Cameron-Wedding warns that it would be easy to “drop an anchor” and make biased conclusions based upon the numbers I see in my court, “as the DMC data weigh you down.” Like, in court, just declaring that black kids commit more crimes than white kids.1
Race matters. Indeed it does in juvenile court.
Michael Eric Dyson is the author of many books, including the recent April 4, 1968, which examines how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death changed America. He is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The current statistics he cites are frightening:
· Nearly 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers, compared to 27 percent of white children and 43 percent of Latinos.
· Blacks are incarcerated at 4.8 times the rate of whites.
· Black youths between the ages of ten and seventeen make up less than 20 percent of their age group in the United States but account for more than 50 percent of those committed or transferred to adult court.
· Black unemployment is twice that of whites, and the incomes of black men are lower today than they were in 1974.
Professor Dyson blames a “legal loophole” for incarcerating so many black adults: the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine abuses. Crack cocaine offenders, mostly black, faced minimum five-year sentences, while powder cocaine offenders were grouped with other controlled substance abusers and first offenders and received a maximum one-year sentence.
For black kids, however, we should focus the lens on an earlier time in their lives, before the lure of drugs, whether crack, powder, or prescription. Here’s where Professor Dyson speaks to a kid like Javaris:
“Black families must shoulder some of the weight and responsibility for improving our lot: increasing parental attention to our children’s education; examining and discouraging some destructive birth trends among vulnerable and desperate single young females; encouraging greater responsibility for black fathers….”?2
Recently a group of second- and third-graders came to observe my delinquency court. They hadn’t been there ten minutes when I saw an alert black kid in the front row lean toward the teacher. I couldn’t hear all his words, but I did catch “Why…so…blacks?” That cute little guy saw the elephant in the courtroom, and he wasn’t afraid to ask why. Good for him.
He also looked so sweet, young, and innocent. So much like Javaris and the other two night swimmers on the day I first met them.
1 Cameron-Wedding, Rita. “Disproportionate Minority Contact.” Presentation to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, St. Louis, MO, March 2008.
2Dyson, Michael Eric, April 14, 1968: Martin Luther King’s Death and How It Changed America, Perseus Books Group, 2008, and Debating Race, Perseus Books Group 2007.