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Parallel Justice Systems Still Exists

But it's not about race - really!

HOUSTON -- 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."

. . .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