Today Jacqueline Montañez was re-sentenced for a highly publicized 1992 gang-related double homicide she participated in when she was 15 years old. My bike accident hasn’t healed enough to allow me to travel so I watched the hearing live streamed by WGN-TV. For more than a decade I’ve been struggling with the meaning of this case Judge Alfredo Maldonado called “senseless.” Jackie’s hearing was a victory for the US Supreme Court’s Miller decision which overturned mandatory life without parole sentences for all juveniles. For Jackie the prison will not be a tomb.
For me however, this case did not result in justice. Rather it exposed serious defects in how we “do justice” in our courts and indeed in our broader culture. I’ll start, incongruously, with Donald Trump.
I cringed when earlier this week Trump called Hillary Clinton “the devil” and said to her face she should be put in jail. His venomous call to lock up a political rival is reprehensible and should be scary for us all. But his demonizing words are also merely a pale imitation of the unbridled rhetoric used by prosecutors routinely in trials of stigmatized defendants, like gang members. For example Jackie was called the “teen queen of criminals,” a “cold-blooded…hitman” of whom “Al Capone could be proud,” a “rat in a corner” and many more horrific and depraved names. In order to justify punitive sentences, like life without parole, prosecutors routinely have relied on dehumanizing rhetoric which, I suspect, for them is not always just rhetoric. Law breakers — otherwise known as human beings — are essentialized as pure evil. An evil nature, rather than evil deeds, can never be changed so it must be punished or obliterated.
As the current political environment so sadly demonstrates it is fashionable to look at the world through Manichean lenses. Our opponents are not just wrong they are deplorable, and we can’t or won’t understand them. In the criminal justice system, this demonization is one cause of the mass incarceration that has earned the US world wide condemnation and shame.
I’ve learned through my many years of working with gang members — and yes, some who have murdered — that gang members, like all of us, are not one thing. Jackie, for example, was shamelessly used by gang chiefs and tricked into thinking the gang was her “family.” Her childhood of abuse was not an excuse, but as the Miller decision explained, a factor to be taken into consideration in sentencing. Jackie, like all of us, is a complex human being. But transcripts of Jackie’s trial display an all out deluge of demonization by prosecutors that reduced her to a one dimensional cartoon character and left no room for even a hint of capacity for rehabilitation.
Gordon Allport first pointed out that we think in categories and this leads to what Hillary Clinton referred to as “implicit bias.” Implicit Association Tests demonstrate that we not only have categories like race and gender embedded deeply in our mind, but we unconsciously act on them. Our culture ascribes meaning to race and gender — women are the “weaker sex” and thus seen by men as willing to accept any sexual advance. African Americans are judged by whites as likely to be violent and often are charged, convicted and sentenced on scant evidence. Women who kill, like Jackie, are de-gendered and transmogrified into monsters.
The stigma of blackness = evil has permeated our culture from slavery to Jim Crow to ghettos and mass incarceration as Loic Wacquant and Michelle Alexander have argued. Patriarchal culture is even more powerful and invisible, like “water for fish,” as Judith Lorber said. We are not always conscious of this implicit bias because it seems normal.
In the trial of Jacqueline Montañez attorneys were helpless as prosecutors raged and demonized a young teenage girl. She was given a mandatory life sentence but a more appropriate charge by prosecutors could have resulted in a sentence that would have allowed parole and rehabilitation. One of her co-defendants, Madeline Mendoza, received 35 years and has already been released. It was Cook County prosecutors’ successful dehumanization and demonization of Montañez that led to her being charged in such a manner that life without parole was the only possible sentence.
I have great sympathy for the families of the two victims, Hector Reyes and Jimmy Cruz. As Jackie’s tears and words in court expressed, nothing can be done to bring back their lives. While today Chicago’s homicide rate is not nearly at 1992 levels, it is indeed a “cancer” as the judge said and has not gone away. But a culture of demonization, so aptly demonstrated by Montañez’s prosecutors, flourishes as well. It runs rampant in our criminal justice system but, sadly, also permeates American mass culture.