By Jeff Mays
MIDTOWN — Rev. Calvin Butts said Afrika Owes, the Harlem teen charged with carrying guns for a gang on 137th Street, should be released from prison as she awaits trial.
"She should be released on her own recognizance and allowed to go back to school and then we will see how the trial unfolds," Butts said Wednesday night. "Right now, I don't think incarceration is doing her any good."
Butts, the pastor at the powerful Abyssinian Baptist Church where the 17-year-old Owes once attended and where her mother is still a member, has been speaking out on behalf of Owes from the pulpit.
Owes was, until last year, a student at the prestigious Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. She withdrew for personal and academic reasons in May while facing disciplinary charges. Those who knew her said they were shocked that she was involved with Harlem youth gangs that the District Attorney's office said run a violent crack- and gun-dealing operation.
Butts has said that Owes was "led astray" and compared her to newspaper heiress Patty Hearst who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army before eventually joining their cause.
"It was just a mistake. She was naive as many are," said Butts. "There are many who are not black and not poor who are naive and swept up in situations who get a second chance," Butts said.
Butts said the church will continue to be involved in the effort to free Owes — who has a hearing coming up this week — but that this was about more than just Owes' plight.
"It became not only about Afrika Owes, but a bigger issue about how many of our young men and women who are now incarcerated, branded as felons, can't vote, are locked out of educational institutions and therefore permanently reduced to a second class citizens and 3/5 of a human being in the eyes of the state," Butts said. "Many of these young people don't need incarceration they need rehabilitation."
The comments came as Butts, who is also the president of State University of New York College at Old Westbury, was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Human Letters from his alma mater, Morehouse College, by its president, Charles Franklin.
"I consider Morehouse to be one of the finest institutions in this country, particularly because it is a place of education and a training ground for African-American men," Butts said at Wednesday night's event at the SUNY Global Center in Midtown.