Ida B. Wells, Heroic Journalist and Activist, Covers the Elaine Massacre in 1919

In 1919, in Elaine, Arkansas, black sharecroppers organized in a church to demand wages. What ensued was the largest racial massacre that occurred in American history. Hundreds of black people, including children and women, were shot down, openly, on the streets. And hundreds more were rounded up in the Phillips County jail. Twelve were convicted and sentenced to death; the convictions that would ultimately be reversed by the Supreme Court.

The heroic journalist Ida B. Wells traveled to the jail, disguising herself as a relative. (They were held in the same jail where I visited Patrick.) She published The Arkansas Race Riot a year later, recording the perspectives of the men who had been falsely accused.

Born a slave in rural Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida Wells-Barnett grew up during emancipation and Reconstruction. She had raised her five siblings on meager wages as a rural schoolteacher. She became one of the most passionate anti-lynching activists and the first African American woman to own her own newspaper.

Here's an excerpt from her reporting: 

I was at Hoop Spur Church that night to lodge meeting. I do know that four or five automobiles full of white men came about fifty yards from the church and put the lights out, then started shooting in the church with about 200 head of, men, women and children. I was on the outside of the church and saw this for myself. Then I ran after they started firing in on the church. I don’t know if anybody got killed at, all. I went home and stayed home that night, then the white people was sending word that they was going to kill all the black people, then I run back in the woods and hid two days then the soldiers came then, I made it to them. I was carried in Elaine and put in the school house and I was there eight days. Then I was brought to Helena and put in jail and whipped near to death and was put in an electric chair to make me lie on other Negroes. It was not the union that brought this trouble; it was our crops. They took everything I had, twenty-two acres of cotton, three acres of corn. All that was taken from me and my people. Also all my household goods. Clothes and all. All my hogs, chickens and everything my people had. I was whipped twice in jail. These white people know that they started this trouble. This union was only for a blind. We were threatened before this union was there to make us leave our crops.

 

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) recently released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, the culmination of a multi-year investigation into lynching in twelve Southern states. Phillips County, where Elaine is located, had 243 lynchings, the most of any county. 

New Brain Research on Young Offenders , Ages 18-21

I have often wondered about the seemingly arbitrary distinction between “under 18” and “18.” Surely it is a legal fiction that, within the flick of a day, an adolescent transforms instantaneously into an adult. If under 18, the defendant is determined “less blameworthy,” as the Supreme Court has concluded. But if he is 18, he is an adult deserving of little mercy.

Obviously, lines need to be drawn somewhere. But is there no way to account for the gray area between 18 and 21, years in which he is still developing?

Scientific research finally has turned towards this question. In the past, research devoted to youth under 18, coupled with the tireless work of youth advocates, resulted in real social change. In 2005, the Supreme Court decision Roper v. Simmons banned the death penalty for defendants under 18 at the time of their crime. And over the course of the past six years, the Supreme Court, has steadily limited, and finally banned, life without parole (LWOP) for youth under 18 at the time of their crime.

But until now, scarcely any research has been done on the brain development of young adults, ages 18 to 21. A recent Vanderbilt study, the result of an intensely interdisciplinary collaboration among law professors, neuroscientists, doctors, and psychologists, shows “distinct changes in the brains of young adults, ages 18 to 21, suggesting that they too may be immature in ways that are relevant to justice policy.” They write that “young adulthood is a distinct developmental period, and that young adults are different both from adolescents and from somewhat older adults in ways that are potentially relevant to justice policy.”

 

Source (above and right): Casey, BJ and Bonnie, Richard J. and Davis, Andre and Faigman, David L. and Hoffman, Morris B. and Jones, Owen D. and Montague, Read and Morse, Stephen and Raichle, Marcus E. and Richeson, Jennifer A. and Scott, Elizabeth S. and Steinberg, Laurence and Taylor-Thompson, Kim A. and Wagner, Anthony D., How Should Justice Policy Treat Young Offenders? (February 2017). MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, February 2017; Vanderbilt Law Research Paper No. 17-9. Available at SSRN:  https://ssrn.com/abstract=2881607

Source (above and right): Casey, BJ and Bonnie, Richard J. and Davis, Andre and Faigman, David L. and Hoffman, Morris B. and Jones, Owen D. and Montague, Read and Morse, Stephen and Raichle, Marcus E. and Richeson, Jennifer A. and Scott, Elizabeth S. and Steinberg, Laurence and Taylor-Thompson, Kim A. and Wagner, Anthony D., How Should Justice Policy Treat Young Offenders? (February 2017). MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, February 2017; Vanderbilt Law Research Paper No. 17-9. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2881607

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Many of their findings seem like common sense. But scientific research on this topic represents a turn to treating this age group as worthy of advocacy. Patrick was 18 when he was arrested. Had he been 17, the punishment of his crime would have been different. His record could be expunged; he would not have a felony; and he might have a better shot at making a living. He may have been placed in juvenile rehabilitation rather than in state prison. And just as important, he might view himself differently. If the law offers a reason for mercy, the defendant might be more willing to offer it to himself. 

For further reading on young adulthood and criminal justice, see this helpful bibliography that I lifted from the study.