La Salle Parish District Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr.-watchers are adamant that the judge is not a bigot, a back country bumpkin, or a judge who's in the hip pocket of La Salle District Attorney Reed Walters. Mauffray has even been criticized by some conservatives as being too fair-minded; meaning that he's willing to tilt ever so slightly toward working to help some of the troubled teens that parade before him in his juvenile court stay out of jail.
Mauffray seemed anything but the fair-minded, erudite jurist when he revoked the $90,000 bond of centerpiece Jena 6 defendant Mychal Bell. This brought howls of rage from Bell's family, attorneys, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and the thousands that flocked to Jena to demand his freedom. But Mauffray as a key juvenile judge in La Salle Parish, in fact virtually the only judge in the parish that hears juvenile cases, is certainly well familiar with Bell.
He has been involved with Bell to one degree or another when he was charged with four prior offenses. In the past two years, he was hauled into the juvenile court that Mauffray helps oversee on battery and property damage charges. The juvenile court and Mauffray did not toss the book at Bell after he committed those offenses. He was placed on probation in April 2006 until his 18th birthday. With the prior offenses that Bell had, he could have easily been held in juvenile jail for the two year period. That has been the fate of legions of other black teens in legions of juvenile courts throughout the country. Many of these youth that languish in juvenile or even adult jails with fewer prior offenses than Bell. But Mauffray and the juvenile court gave Bell the benefit of the doubt and another chance.
This seemed in keeping with Mauffray's bent, and the source of some of the criticism, that he is willing to work with troubled youth. Bell is his greatest challenge yet, though. And the notoriety of the case makes it even more of a challenge, and a prime reason for his hard ball on Bell's bail. He ticked off these three reasons for revoking bail: the seriousness of the offense (beating white student Justin Barker), the weight of the evidence, and of course, his previous record.
Yet Mauffray also heard Bell's father, and several prominent local African-American ministers publicly vow to monitor, counsel, and tightly supervise Bell. He heard them promise to get him into another high school in another town or parish in an aggressive effort to put Bell in a new environment that will help him straighten out his life. Mauffray obviously wasn't moved enough to release him, but he did offer a glimmer of hope when he conceded that those who would cocoon Bell had "excellent intentions." That showed that the judge at least recognized that many people are now committed to helping Bell put the past behind him, finish high school and go on to college, maybe even on a football scholarship.
Mauffray can make this possible if he translates his glimmer of recognition that help has been offered into action and releasing Bell. The nine months that Bell spent in jail before even being convicted of the aggravated battery charge is not just harsh punishment, but also a harsh and sobering experience and lesson for Bell. A long jail sentence is the best and the worst kind of wake-up call that the system is pitiless and no-nonsense when it comes to meting out punishment to black teens accused of serious crimes. Bell is no different than countless other black teens that have gotten into trouble with the law, and could turn their lives around if given a second, and yes, if necessary, even a third chance.
The sledgehammer treatment of black teens in juvenile courts nationally is tormenting proof that that chance is more often than not given to them. The teens become yet another tragic statistic and a monument to the towering failure of the juvenile criminal justice system to fulfill what was once its mandate, namely to rehabilitate youth, and not simply toss away the cell key on them.
In the past, Judge Mauffray has shown both compassion and a willingness to work with young people. He has recognized in those that he has helped that rehabilitation is not a dirty word and that with the right mix of counseling and mentoring, troubled youth can easily become productive adults. He has given these youth a second chance. And he has given Bell a second chance. He should give it to him again. This time, Judge, he won't fail. There are too many eyes in Jena and the nation watching him to make sure that he doesn't.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.