As a member of the “Jena 6,” Theo Shaw was imprisoned for seven months without adequate legal counsel. Now, Shaw is emerging as a vocal opponent to a proposal to inject another $3.5 million into the juvenile detention system.
In testimony before the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee Tuesday, Shaw argued that an Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) proposal to provide millions more in funding as they open a new 72-bed facility, the Acadiana Center for Youth, could provide incentives for OJJ to expand bed capacity in other facilities. Acadiana was built, in part, to give detainees easier access to their family members, so many juveniles housed around Louisiana are planning to transfer to the new facility.The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (LCCR) and Shaw hope that other facilities will remove beds — not add more.
Shaw gained national attention in 2007, as one of six black Jena High School students who faced murder charges for beating a white classmate. The incident occurred after white students hung nooses on a tree, the day after a black student sat beneath it. White students typically sat under the tree, and hung the nooses in response to the black student’s decision to break the status quo. Racial tension escalated in subsequent months, culminating in the fight that sparked national outrage. Shaw, who was 17 years old at the time, maintained that he wasn’t involved in the assault, and spent seven months behind bars because his family didn’t have enough money to pay his bail.
Talking about his experience, Shaw told ThinkProgress, “I temporarily felt foreign to myself, because I was beginning to feel like a problem child — it was how they perceived me to be. When I was in the mugshot and wearing an orange jumpsuit, being incarcerated with adults 24/7, it forced me to feel like something was wrong with me. It took a lot of effort, mentally, to reject their perspectives about me.” In the absence of the public defender who was assigned to his case, Shaw began researching Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure and filing court motions on his own behalf. “It provided me with some sort of hope and expectation of being released.”
Shaw’s decision to speak out against OJJ funding stems, in large part, from his own experience in the system. Shaw has since become a community advocate for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and a fellow with Youth Justice Leadership Institute. In that capacity, he is charged with visiting correctional facilities for juveniles and adults in Louisiana and Biloxi, Mississippi, and speaking one-on-one with detainees. During his tenure with SPLC, he’s repeatedly heard about excessive isolation, inadequate representation from public defenders, and poor educational resources for juveniles.
Instead of funding facility expansion, Shaw argues that the money should go to post-disposition representation for young people in group and secure homes. “The Louisiana code provides right to counsel at every stage of the proceeding, and this includes post-disposition. If the goal of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate these kids, a lot of them are doing exceptionally well academically and completing treatment programs, but they’re not able to get back in court and file a motion to modify their disposition,” he explained. “They don’t have an attorney who can assist them with that. A lot of these kids don’t have conversations with their attorneys; they can’t even get in touch with an attorney to let them know what’s going on.”
“A lot of kids are in detention for non-violent offenses and don’t need to be there. They aren’t a threat to public safety.”
According to the Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice, there are 420 juveniles in secure facilities, and 3,093 under its supervision. The vast majority are between 16 and 17-years-old and black.