CR-CL conference probes meaning of Jena 6

BY JOANNA NAIRN

In September of 2007, tens of thousands of people from around the country converged on the tiny town of Jena, Louisiana to protest what many believed to be the unfair and racially-motivated prosecution of six black teenagers. On March 13-14, the discussion of Jena came to HLS and the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review‘s 2009 Conference. Spearheaded by Professors Carol Steiker ’86 and Andrew Taslitz of Howard University, and sponsored by the Arnold D. Roseman Fund for the Law of Criminal Defense, the conference brought together legal academics from across the country to discuss the implications of Jena for race relations and our criminal justice system.

At Friday night’s dinner, keynote speaker Professor Charles Ogletree ’78 drew a parallel between his own time as a student editor on CRCL, during which the journal tackled the issue of affirmative action in the wake of the Bakke decision, and the Jena incident. In both cases, he noted, the result was not a happy one. He urged the conference participants and attendees to ensure that Jena was not relegated to being just another example of America’s troubling treatment of minority communities. From the lessons of Jena, said Professor Ogletree, real change might be found.

The speakers at the conference, whose articles will be published in CRCL’s Spring 2009 edition, used the Jena incident to draw broader lessons for the future. Friday’s panels explored crime through the lenses of history and governance, and prosecutorial ethics and biases. Professor Jack Chin made a presentation about the racialized history of Louisiana’s criminal justice system, and Professor Joseph Kennedy addressed the current crisis surrounding mass incarceration of black youth. On the subject of ethics and bias, Professor Ellen Podgor discussed the importance of holistic charging decisions, and Professor Andrew Taslitz examined the role of prosecutors in the economy of racial disesteem. Professor Sara Sun Beale highlighted changes to the juvenile justice system over the past few decades.

Saturday morning’s panel concentrated on hate speech and included presentations from Professor Jeannine Bell, on nooses as hate speech, and Professor Frank Wu, discussing hate crimes against Asian Americans.

Several students who are publishing pieces in the Spring edition also presented at the conference. Tona Boyd ’09 and Cara Suvall ’10 spoke Friday morning about the school to prison pipeline. Boyd compared federal legislative approaches to troubled youth, while Suvall advocated a restorative justice model for school discipline.

Friday afternoon, Heather Cobb ’10 discussed the need for more extensive disciplinary procedures within schools to prevent transfers to the criminal justice system. Kerala Cowart ’11 spoke about the Vera Institute’s work in measuring and combating implicit biases amongst prosecutors.

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