Shaquanda Cotton

A couple of days ago, I mentioned in passing the case of Shaquanda Cotton, a high school freshman in Paris, Texas, who was sentenced to seven years in the TYC facility in Brownwood for pushing a teacher’s aide. (Vince, Grits, and North Texas Liberal have the background.) Yesterday, as part of TYC Conservator Jay Kimbrough’s plan to review all TYC sentences, she was released after serving a year of her incarceration.

“[Kimbrough] made a determination that she served her time and it was time to let that child out,” said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

Cotton could have been kept in a cell until her 21st birthday. But a public outcry about the case helped secure her release.

“I’ve spent the whole year fighting this,” her mother, Creola Cotton, said.

On Friday, the 54-year-old single mother rushed to find a rental car and began preparing for the trip to Brownwood today to pick up her daughter and bring her home.

“She’s thrilled,” said Brenda Cherry, a Paris civil rights activist and a close family friend.

Confidentiality laws prevented Kimbrough from talking about Cotton’s case. Speaking in general terms, however, Kimbrough touched on how the TYC’s haphazard system of extending youths’ sentences could lead to the release of an inmate.

“I have said a lot — as have parents, staff and legislators — about the fragmented and disjointed and decentralized process where youth sentences have been extended by TYC,” Kimbrough said Friday. “Every facility has a different version plan, model and system.”

A week ago, Kimbrough announced he would begin to review every case in which the TYC extended a youth’s sentence.

“I started with ‘B, Brownwood,’ ” he said.

For the past year, Cotton has been locked up at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood.

West said Cotton would be placed on conditional parole for about three months.

“This particular case defies all logic, and I’ve worked 25 years as an attorney,” West said. “I challenge Americans to take a look at this case where people in the criminal justice system are dealt with differently, based, it seems, on the color of their skin.”

Just for reference, here’s Paris, TX, and here’s Brownwood, TX. Given that Mrs. Cotton apparently doesn’t own a car, that’s a long distance for her daughter to be away from her.

Whatever you may want to think, there’s a racial aspect to this case that can’t be overlooked or hand-waved away. It pretty much boils down to this:

Cotton’s struggle against authorities in this small northeast Texas town focuses on a single thread: how a black teenager with no prior criminal history was sent to prison for what her supporters say was a mere brush-up against a teacher’s aide, while a white classmate was given probation for burning down her family’s rental property by setting a Christmas tree on fire.

Prosecutors in the case counter that the incident involving Cotton was much more serious than a shove. It was an assault, described by Lamar County Attorney Gary Young as a “body slam” that sent a petite 58-year-old teacher’s aide to the ground.

“It was no push,” Young said. “When you assault a teacher in Lamar County, you’re going to get prosecuted.”

Let’s stipulate, just for argument’s sake, that “push” really means “body slam”. One presumes that the teacher’s aide did not suffer any lasting injury, but if one accept’s Attorney Young’s description, she could have. If it’s serious enough to warrant locking up a 14-year-old girl until her 21st birthday, then how exactly is it that an arsonist, who clearly would have put people’s lives in danger, received probation? You can accept Cotton’s sentence as justice if you insist, but how do you square it with the other girl’s?

Young said his office had recommended the white student convicted of arson be sent to TYC. But Lamar County Judge Maurice Superville, the same judge who sentenced Cotton, opted for probation, in part because the white girl had relatives who offered to look after her. Young said Creola Cotton did not cooperate with probation officials and declared she would refuse to do so because her daughter was innocent.

Creola Cotton claimed she said no such thing.

There are other disputed facts in this story, and if one wants to believe everything that is being said by the local authorities about Shaquanda Cotton, then one can convince oneself that she got what she deserved. That’s only half of the equation, of course; good luck balancing the rest of it out. Note that even Attorney Young says at the end of the story that “She did a year for something she could have gotten probation for. That’s more than enough time.” NTL has more.

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