BROWNWOOD, Texas -- Shaquanda Cotton, whose yearlong stay in a juvenile prison for pushing a hall monitor made her a symbol of alleged racial bias in the troubled Texas Youth Commission, was released Saturday, a state lawmaker said.
The 15-year-old was freed from the Ron Jackson Correctional Complex and picked up by her mother, said Rep. Harold Dutton, chairman of the House juvenile justice committee who lobbied state officials for Cotton's release.
Dutton said Cotton and her family headed back to Paris, her East Texas hometown near the Oklahoma border where civil rights activists have held two protests in as many weeks calling for her release.
"She had a whole cavalry" when picked up, said Dutton, a Houston Democrat.
Attempts to reach the Cotton family by phone weren't successful.
Cotton was sentenced on a felony count of shoving the teacher's aide, who is classified as a public servant, before the morning bell at Paris High School in 2005. She had no prior criminal convictions or arrests, and the hall monitor received no "documentable injury." Prosecutors in Cotton's case expressed surprise at Dutton's news, saying they were told Friday morning by the commission that the girl had not met the agency's standards for release.
"Apparently now, cases that get the most attention from screaming activists can grab the ear of state legislators who can simply order people to be freed from incarceration," said Allan Hubbard, a spokesman for the Lamar County district attorney's office. "That could be dangerous."
Cotton was eligible to be released on March 17, but had not met the agency's standards for release governing academics, behavior and "correctional therapy," Hubbard said. According to reports from the Chicago Tribune, the paper that originally broke Cotton's story, the girl was disciplined for "contraband" – an extra pair of socks in her cell.
Activists say the fact that the same judge sentenced a White 14-year-old girl to probation for burning down her own house signaled evidence of racial bias. Prosecutors have downplayed the similarity of Shaquanda's case with the White arsonist, saying a family member stepped forward and was willing to meet terms of probation. The girl later violated her probation twice, after the judge gave her a second chance, and was sent to a commission facility, Hubbard said.
Judge Chuck Superville, who sentenced both teenagers, has said witness testimony indicated that Creola Cotton would not cooperate with probation requirements if her daughter was released back into her custody.
Superville gave Shaquanda an indefinite sentence, but she had to stay at least 12 months given the severity of her offense. She is one of 400 juveniles being released who have completed their minimum sentences and committed no serious violations while in custody.
Also fanning the racial flames in Paris, a city of about 26,000, are eight federal investigations into the city's school district for civil rights violations. The U.S. Department of Education found no evidence of discrimination in three cases, and the five others remain open.
Her release was approved by Jay Kimbrough, the conservator appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to lead the state's embattled juvenile justice agency, which has been wracked by allegations of sexual abuse. Kimbrough has said he will assemble a panel to review records of all youth inmates to make sure their records hadn't been extended unfairly.
Cotton was among about 4,700 offenders ages 10 to 21 in TYC facilities who are considered the most dangerous, incorrigible or chronic.
Prosecutors in Cotton's case have maintained they tried to keep Cotton out of juvenile prison but say the judge in the case had no other options.