Can the 'School-to-Prison' Pipeline Be Snapped? Up Close with James Bell and Katayoon Majd

Mariame Kaba

For those who follow corrections, it comes as little surprise that the United States leads the world in the rates of incarcerated – and it leads with state spending on corrections totaling approximately $52 billion, the bulk of it earmarked for prisons, according to a 2011 Pew Research report.

Of even smaller surprise is that the system is lopsided against minorities – but what can shock is just how skewed the system is. Consider: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men are likely to be imprisoned in his life, while for whites it’s one in 17.

But with reports in recent years out of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and even Chicago about how racially skewed the justice system is, and how that imbalance often begins in the school, the knowledge of the issue is starting – starting – to gain traction.

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a website based outside Atlanta and a partner of The Chicago Bureau, held an online discussion recently on youth of color and the juvenile justice system, moderated by JJIE’s Katy McCarthy and featuring James Bell of the W. Haywood Burns Institute and Katayoon Majd of the Public Welfare Foundation. The former works to reduce racial and ethnic disparities for teenagers of color in the American justice system, whereas the latter funds policy reform efforts in the United States.

Although the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 2002 broadened the scope of the ‘disproportionate minority confinement’ (DMC) initiative to that of ‘disproportionate minority contact’ (DMC), Bell finds even that term, so widely used in discourse today, somewhat archaic.

“DMC started in the 80’s,” he said. “As we move into 2014, [we move] to the stage where young people of color are the majority in states like Hawaii, New Mexico, California and Texas. To continue to call people of color a ‘minority’ in places where most of the young people are is backwards thinking.”

The need for a ‘normal’ maturation process

Aside from data-driven work, The Burns Institute leads monthly collaborations between individuals of the community as well as juvenile justice practitioners on disparities within the juvenile justice system.

“We look at data, policies, and practices,” Bell said. “We’re [occasionally] forced to facilitate hard conversations… and to deal with [those] in denial about racial and ethnic disparities.”

Bell is a strong advocate for letting young people mature in an environment that allows room for mistakes, which often times stem from ‘normal’ teenage behavior, and where “children learn to be children.”

However, the implementation of zero tolerance policies, which punish any infraction of a rule “regardless of the seriousness of behavior, circumstances, or context,” disallows that very kind of maturation process to take place.

In Bell’s view, those policies are implemented based on the fact that legislators know little to nothing about communities of color.

“They would never implement these laws on their own children,” Bell said.

He is “always not in favor of zero tolerance policies,” and stresses that these legislators should look at each individual situation.

The school-to-prison pipeline

Many youths of color often come in contact with the juvenile justice system through referrals from schools – schools that are often in impoverished areas, some repeatedly failing to make the grade in testing, leading to school closures and relocations for the youths. The odds are stacked, with many dropping out, failing to graduate, and gravitating to a life that offers little opportunity for escape or real success in the American paradigm.

In what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the widespread belief that zero tolerance policies and other “get tough” strategies effectively correct behavior and remove disruptive students often lands a student in the principal’s office, leading to suspension or expulsion, and eventually the justice system.

In contrast, more than a few scholars have documented how the same situations involving white adolescents would end up in suspensions, perhaps a slap on the wrist and being sent back to class with another chance.

Cops are rarely called in in these cases, and the pipeline is cut off more for whites than for blacks and Latinos – populations some administrators actually believe are better served by being introduced to the criminal justice system as a warning. But it’s a warning that turns into a crazed cycle that spits out criminals on the other end, according to research on the subject.

This pipeline is prevalent in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty – mostly minority. In contrast, misbehaving students in Country Day private schools usually don’t come into contact with the justice system.

According to Bell, parents of these students are “paying thousands of dollars for tolerance”—a form of protection that is out of question for the minority youth.

Following the massacre at Columbine in the late 1990s, many schools started putting officers in schools – if they hadn’t already – with a surge of police at schools that ‘seemed’ to pose a risk by dent of their location, their racial and economic makeup – even though most massacres in the schools system have been committed by white people.

As a result of having these ‘school resource officers’ on campus, there has been a sharp spike in the number of teenagers being referred to the juvenile justice system. Arrests are made for trivial, low-level offenses, which Majd thinks don’t belong in court and should be dealt with in the community instead.

“I understand people want their kids to be safe at school, but research shows that that’s not the way to do it,” she said. “We need to look at the juvenile codes and see what’s eligible for court involvement and what’s not.”

Although the juvenile justice system essentially deals with misbehaviors, it should instead focus its efforts on resolving social problems within communities including unemployment and low income. Contrary to popular belief, the alleged ‘solution’ of incarceration does not reduce crime.

The media’s role in this issue

For Majd, the media and its representation of communities of color perpetuate the racial divide in the criminal justice system. Although juvenile arrests have been decreasing significantly over the last decade, sensationalistic coverage of isolated, violent crimes cement the impression of the average viewer that youth of color are ‘dangerous’ and ‘out of control’.

“The way it reports on what happens in communities is so biased and skewed,” she said. “There’s always the sense that violence is getting worse,” when a quick look at the statistics even in Chicago shows that we’re at a 40-year-plus low on many crime fronts, including homicide.

As a solution, Majd proposed that the media report more on the harm done by the juvenile justice system, and write more stories on the good that’s happening in communities disproportionately impacted by the system.

“People who don’t come from these communities just don’t understand the great harm that can be done by juvenile justice system contact,” she said. “We need a fundamental shift in how the public views justice and public safety.”

For Bell, that shift can be achieved by assigning more journalists to the children’s beat.

“If you get to know the world in which you’re reporting, these stories will emerge naturally because you’re there,” he said.

“Until we change that dynamic by having people cover communities and how they’re varied, we’re going to run into the same problem.”

For the full discussion, see below video:


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