In 1944, the State of South Carolina executed George Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old Black boy, after he was wrongly convicted of murdering two white girls.
A report made public late last month by the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) notes that “the straps of the electric chair were too big” for Stinney’s small body and “he sat on a stack of books to be electrocuted.”
Stinney, arrested and interrogated alone, without his parents and without an attorney, was done in by a sole piece of evidence presented at his trial: a sheriff’s claim that he confessed to the crimes.
An all-white jury convicted the child within 10 minutes, and it took a full 70 years after his death for him to finally be exonerated, when in 2014 a judge vacated the teen’s conviction.
The authors of the exhaustively researched, 54-page report cite Stinney’s execution as part of the historical “adultification” of Black and brown children who are often perceived as more dangerous, more prone to be involved in drug use, less innocent, and less responsive to rehabilitation than their white peers.
“The George Stinney piece, that’s where the concept comes in,” says Tyler Whittenberg, who is deputy director of the Advancement Project and a coauthor of Invest in Our Youth, Invest in Our Children: Ending Youth Criminalization in North Carolina, the report published by the SCSJ.
“The criminalization and opposition of Black and brown bodies has always been a part of white supremacy,” Whittenberg says.
The landmark report was “created in partnership with local grassroots organizations and highlights the long-term impact and cost of youth criminalization in North Carolina, including the psychological harm of youth detention centers and the school-to-prison pipeline,” according to a SCSJ press statement.
The report “advocates for a divestment in youth criminalization and an investment in community-led youth wellness services in North Carolina.”
Moreover, the report “chronicles how Black children have been historically targeted by racist policies in the criminal legal system.”
Among the report’s findings:
• In 2020, Black youth represented 56 percent of juvenile complaints and 67 percent of youth placed in short- and long-term confinement but are only a quarter of North Carolina’s youth population.
• Incarceration in North Carolina’s most restrictive form of confinement disproportionately impacts African American children.
• On average, young people in youth development centers have three separate mental health and/or substance use diagnoses.
• With the money North Carolina spends on incarcerating one child for a single year ($155,734), the state can cover in-state tuition for 23 college students annually.
The report also notes that the overpolicing of Black children begins in schools and “forms an integral part of the school-to-prison pipeline and the social control of students of color.”
The report authors explain that school resource officers in schools are “associated with increased referrals to law enforcement for minor, nonviolent infractions,” and “police officers often perceive Black boys as older, view them as less childlike and less innocent than white boys of the same age suspected of committing the same offenses.”
The report makes an even more compelling case on behalf of Black girls, noting that while Black students are “the most overdisciplined demographic compared to white students … Black girls are overdisciplined at even higher rates than Black boys compared to white youth.”
As a consequence of what the report describes as “the adultification of Black girls,” their suspensions “are often driven by teachers’ unconscious racial bias, and frequently occur when students justifiably break racist rules” that include policies that prohibit specific hairstyles and clothing, thus empowering educators “to apply stereotypes interpreting certain behaviors as defiant.”
The authors also state that “insufficient mental health resources also play a role in the overcriminalization of Black girls.”
One of the report’s coauthors, Sabine Schoenbach, an attorney and senior policy analyst with the SCSJ, says the importance of the report and the story its data tells about the criminalization of youth of color across the state “cannot be understated.”
“Too long, our state has created and reinforced structures that expose North Carolina’s children to traumatic experiences that negatively affect their development and potentially alter their life’s trajectory with impacts into the next generation,” Schoenbach states in the SCSJ release.
“Youth heal in loving communities, not courtrooms and cages,” says Imadé Borha, an SCSJ communications advocate who is also the report’s coauthor.
Indeed, the report questions whether a “youth punishment system” should even exist.
“The whole point of the report is that the system cannot be reformed,” Whittenberg says.
The report was published against the backdrop of Durham County’s ongoing plans to build a new and expanded $30 million youth detention center that will house 35 to 40 juveniles.
Architectural designs indicate the detention center space could be expanded to house 60 children awaiting the resolution of their criminal court cases. The new detention center will be built on undeveloped land where the current 14-bed youth home shares space with the offices of Durham County Emergency Management on Broad Street. It’s expected to be completed by 2023.
Wendy Jacobs, cochair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, told the INDY this week that construction of the facility is included in the budget approved this week, and is in the “pre-construction” phase, which includes soil studies.
County commissioners for several years have said they have a legal obligation to build a new detention center following the death of 17-year-old Uniece Glenae Fennell, who died by suicide in 2017 while in custody on charges of murder at the adult downtown detention center. The teen’s mother, Julia Graves, filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against Durham County that claimed the sheriff’s office’s and county jailers’ neglect led to the wrongful death of her daughter.
As previously reported by the INDY, at the time of her death, Uniece was a minor being detained among adult inmates, according to the wrongful death complaint her mother filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro.
A May 2019 settlement with Durham County included a provision requiring the board of commissioners “to study, explore, and construct, if feasible, an expanded Durham County Youth Home, or develop some alternative plan for total sight and sound separation between juveniles and adults in Durham County. Only after all reasonable efforts to find an in-county placement solution have been exhausted can Durham County children be housed in an out of county facility.”
Durham County commissioners say the court order is one of the reasons behind their support for the construction of a new youth detention center, along with a 2019 “raise the age” law, which bars most 16- and 17-year-olds from being automatically charged as adults, and soaring rates of youth gun violence.
Opposition to a new youth detention center has been considerable over the past two years, most notably in November, during a virtual, two-hour town hall, “Youth Heal in Communities, Not Cages,” hosted by members of Durham Beyond Policing, a coalition of local groups who want divestment from jails and prisons and investment in evidence-based crime prevention models.
Whittenberg, while speaking with the INDY this week, again criticized a new youth detention center and questioned the need for such an expanded facility.
“The county already detains a small number of juveniles—two or three—accused of murder. That’s no excuse to lock up 36 children in Durham.”
Whittenberg calls the county commissioners’ insistence that they have a legal obligation to build a youth detention center because of Uniece’s death “a false argument,” along with one county commissioner’s scenario of a teen on a “murderous rampage” being allowed back on the streets where he can harm another family.
“That’s the same fear-based logic behind the war on drugs,” Whittenberg says. “The same logic that led to mass incarceration. How different is that from [former president] Nixon? It’s the same logic that led us here.”
He notes that after the mass shooting in Uvalde, America’s elected officials who are struggling with an unprecedented rise in gun violence would realize that calls for more police, arming teachers, and “hardening” schools are not effective.
“They want to build fortresses around schools but offer no mental health counseling,” Whittenberg says. “People are beginning to see the hypocrisy.”
Whittenberg, an attorney, praised Durham County district attorney Satana Deberry’s decision to stop prosecuting criminal referrals from Durham Public Schools, saying that complaints from the school system accounted for 80 percent of all juvenile complaints prior to her election in 2019 but have now “shot down to 12 percent.”
“Durham has been doing a great job,” Whittenberg told the INDY this week. “Now it’s about to head down the wrong road. If you build it, it’s going to fill up,” he adds about the new youth detention center.
“Every city says it’s different,” Whittenberg says. “But they’re all locking Black boys up. How is that different?”
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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.