Should we Celebrate the Prison Sentences for the Culprits of a Racist Assault at a Child's Birthday Party in Georgia?
This week, a Georgia judge sentenced Kayla Norton, 25, and Jose “Joe” Torres, 26, to a combined 19 years in prison after a jury convicted them of gang enhancements and crimes for their roles in a group's racist rampage at an 8-year-old's birthday party — an assault that included shouting racial slurs, making armed threats and waving Confederate battle flags.
Many across the country are reveling in the lengthy sentences imposed upon Norton and Torres. More specifically, many opponents of mass incarceration seem to be celebrating the use of incarceration in response to Norton and Torres' ugly behavior.
I am concerned about the message sent by the sentences and urge those calling for an end to mass incarceration to think carefully before applauding the punishments levied upon Norton and Torres.
1) I wrote it after the furor surrounding Brock Turner's sentence and write it again now as people celebrate the lengthy imprisonment of Norton and Torres: the culture of mass incarceration has warped our psyches into thinking that lengthy jail or prison terms are always the answer to crime. We continue to rely on the misguided metric of incarceration equaling justice.
2) The old adage “You do the crime, you do the time” needs to change to “you do the crime, you will receive a sentence which may or may not include incarceration that takes into account the gravity of the offense, the impact on the victim, public safety, your background & circumstances and your rehabilitation.”
Maybe Norton and Torres deserved or required incarceration. Perhaps, instead of or in addition to incarceration, they, their victims and society would benefit more from a deeper understanding of what laid beneath their ugly acts, programs to remedy those behaviors,
community service and restorative justice where the victims would receive some measure of restitution and healing for their anguish and trauma.
3) Some may argue that these people deserve lengthy incarceration for their despicable, unsympathetic behavior, especially given their racial motivations and their victimization of a black child and her birthday party attendees.
While their behavior was abhorrent, advocating for and celebrating their lengthy sentences only endorses our system and culture of mass incarceration. In doing so, we implicitly and explicitly sanction the use of incarceration as our best and only answer to crime. We effectively send the message that our broken structure and system of mass incarceration is appropriate and legitimate. We perpetuate the machine of mass incarceration that ultimately disproportionately impacts the underprivileged and minorities that make up the bulk of the criminal justice system.
4) Bryan Stevenson wrote in his book “Just Mercy,” that “Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven't earned it, who haven't even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.”
With that beautiful passage in mind, I remind myself and others: being against mass incarceration has most meaning when we call for decarceration in the least sympathetic cases.
5) Some may argue that the sentences are justified because Norton and Torres are receiving the same sentences they would receive if they were black and if they had terrorized a white child's birthday party. Some may justify the sentences by arguing that similarly convicted black people would have received even harsher sentences.
While it may be true that similarly situated black or minority offenders would have received similar or harsher sentences, shouldn't we instead be calling for a reduction in the sentences of black and minority offenders rather than seeking to over-penalize white offenders? We should use this case and the case of Brock Turner as opportunities and launching points to remedy the inequities that plague our criminal justice system rather than perpetuating them. We should seek to elevate our practices and discourse in response to crime rather than falling back to the customs of disproportionate, harsh sentencing and over incarceration that plague us.
6) News reports indicate that the group involved in this incident,“Respect the Flag,” was indicted by a Douglas County grand jury and that the jury convicted Norton and Torres of gang enhancements in addition to their base crimes. I wasn't there for the trial and haven't read the testimony, so I don't know if this group is really a gang. That said, it seems as if the government created a gang, when one didn't truly exist, through its prosecution. In doing so, the sentences were enhanced and lengthier terms of incarceration were available to the trial judge.
This happens all the time in my county; prosecutors tack on gang enhancements to crimes that are not based on actual gang related evidence and instead grounded in assumptions and prejudices that many, if not all, Black and Latino young men are gang members and that every crime they commit is for the benefit of or in association with a street gang. These heavy handed gang enhancements, often weak or frivolous, prejudice juries and ultimately subject the accused to severe terms of incarceration.
Again, rather than celebrate these convictions for gang enhancements against Norton and Torres and their subsequent enhanced sentences, we should be cautious as to not condone the use of government endorsed racism and bigotry in the form of gang enhancements that result in the disproportionate punishments levied upon minorities across our nation.