After spending a year behind bars, Shaquanda Cotton walked out of a central Texas youth prison Saturday pretty much like many 15-year-olds would: eager for a hug from her mom and pining for a Big Mac.
So McDonald’s was the first stop for the soft-spoken black teenager, who was abruptly released by Texas officials after nationwide civil rights protests erupted over her sentence of up to 7 years for shoving a teacher’s aide at her high school.
“I feel like I have a second chance,” she said, moments after devouring her hamburger. “I’m going to be a better person now. I’m a good person, but I want to be a better person.”
Soon after the restaurant stop, though, Cotton and her mother Creola headed out on the five-hour drive from the prison in Brownwood back home to Paris, the small northeast Texas town that has been roiled by protests and racial acrimony over her case and broader allegations of racial discrimination in the town’s schools and courts.
What reception awaits the teenager there in coming days is anyone’s guess, but her mother says she is concerned.
“I don’t want to place my daughter in danger,” Creola Cotton said. “I hope we can stay in Paris because this is where my family is. I would hate to have to pick up and leave.”
At the heart of the controversy, which exploded across hundreds of Internet blogs and then scores of newspapers and radio and TV stations in the last three weeks, was the seeming severity of the teenager’s sentence for an offense that caused no documentable injury to the teacher’s aide.
Three months before Cotton, who had no prior criminal record, was sentenced by Paris Judge Chuck Superville in March, 2006, to up to seven years in youth prison for the shoving incident, Superville sentenced a 14-year-old white girl convicted of the more serious crime of arson to probation. Later, when the white teenager violated her probation, Superville gave her yet another chance and declined to send her to prison. Only when the youth violated her probation a second time did the judge order her locked up.
School officials, the Paris district attorney and the judge have all strongly denied that race played a role in the prosecution and sentencing of Cotton. But her case has coincided with an ongoing investigation of the Paris school district by the U.S. Department of Education, which is examining allegations that the district systemically discriminates against black students by disciplining them more frequently and more harshly than whites.
The furor over Cotton’s case caused the special conservator now in charge of the Texas Youth Commission, the state’s juvenile prison system, to examine it more closely last week, at the urging of civil rights leaders.
The conservator, Jay Kimbrough, who is charged with completely overhauling the Texas Youth Commission because of a spreading sex scandal involving prison officials who allegedly coerced sex from inmates, decided Friday that Shaquanda merited immediate release.
Kimbrough said his decision was not based on the circumstances of the teenager’s prosecution and sentence but rather on the arbitrary way in which her indeterminate sentence had been extended by prison authorities since she had been incarcerated. Authorities penalized her because she was found with “contraband” in her cell—an extra pair of socks.
“The TYC staff brought that file in to me [Friday] morning and were so surprised by what they saw that they felt like immediate action was justified, and I supported that wholeheartedly,” Kimbrough said.
Cotton was the first of an estimated 400 juveniles incarcerated across the state whom Kimbrough has ordered released, beginning Monday. Those youths have all satisfied their minimum sentences and have committed no serious violations while in custody.
Kimbrough has also convened a special review panel to examine the sentences of all 4,700 juveniles in Texas Youth Commission custody, with the goal of releasing any whose sentences have been unjustly extended by prison authorities.
“This is the right thing to do and TYC could have and should have done it long before Mr. Kimbrough took over,” said Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas chapter of the ACLU. “Shaquanda was the first domino, but there will be hundreds if not thousands to follow.” Chicago Tribune