The nation recently got a firsthand view of what advocates have dubbed the “school to prison pipeline” when a video went viral of a South Carolina school police officer slamming a teenage girl to ground, then dragging and handcuffing her. Her crime had been chewing gum, texting on her cell phone, and refusing to leave her desk in her classroom. For that she was physically assaulted and arrested. And so the pipeline begins.
Studies show that the vast majority of youth in the juvenile justice system were suspended from school before winding up incarcerated or on probation. And the majority of adult inmates in state prisons around the country were once in the juvenile system. Hence the pipeline – from school suspension to juvenile hall to the penitentiary.
But, just like school suspensions can lead to youth detention, reducing suspensions can have the opposite effect.
In Los Angeles, with the second largest school district in the country, the number of school suspension days reduced by an astonishing 89 percent over the last five years, from seventy-four thousand per year down to 8,000. And sure enough, the rate of youth in the juvenile justice system has also plummeted in Los Angeles County. Over the past five years, the number of youth incarcerated in the county’s juvenile detention centers and camps have been cut in half, according to LA Probation Department reports.
In Oakland, CA, a similar pattern has occurred. Suspensions dropped 15 percent the last school year, which was the second straight school year that suspensions decreased. The federal Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights has threatened to sue the District for its historical disproportionate suspension of African-American students. Since the Oakland school district entered an agreement with DOJ, suspensions of Black students have dropped precipitously, from 1,050 in 2011 to 630 in 2014.
According to data from the Alameda County Court, the number of new delinquency petitions, meaning the number of new charges filed against youth, has dropped 54 percent in the past six years. Less than half of the number of youth are being charged with crimes today in Alameda County (Oakland) than they were in 2009.
In 2004, a large political fight was brewing after Alameda County officials announced plans to build the largest per capita juvenile detention center in the country, with a capacity of 560 beds. A successful campaign by youth advocates resulted in the building of a smaller facility of 340 beds, though there were warnings of overcrowding. The new juvenile hall has never been full and today holds just 110 youth.
School suspension and expulsion rates have gone down statewide. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced in January, “a dramatic 20 percent drop in the number of students expelled in 2013-14 and a 15.2 percent decline in the number of students suspended. This marks the second year in a row of declines in both areas.” This meant that 49,987 fewer students were suspended in 2013-14 compared to the year before.
And of all of the statistics cited in this article, the dramatic decline in the number of youth incarcerated in state juvenile facilities is most notable. In 1996, there were more than 10,000 youth in the California Youth Authority’s juvenile prisons – today, there are less than 700. And all the youth have not just been transferred to county lock-ups. A report released last year by Commonweal revealed that the total population of youth detained in all county facilities across the state is only at half of the capacity of those combined institutions.
Much of this decline is about better decisions being made by systems. In the last two years, the School Boards in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland have all voted to eliminate “willful defiance” as a reason to suspend a student, which used to account for up to half of all suspensions. The broadly interpreted willful defiance policy was often students “talking back” to teachers. Probation Departments are also making better decisions, not admitting into their juvenile detention centers youth charged with low level offenses like shoplifting or school yard scuffles.
But youth are also making better decisions. A recent report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that juvenile crime in California is at an all-time low, with less youth crime today since statistics were first collected in the 1950s.
This is all reason to celebrate. But while we acknowledge the progress that has been made, we must recognize how much further we have to go. There remains just over two million youth arrested each year in America. This would include the South Carolina girl and many like her where no video was taken. On any given day, there are nearly 70,000 youth incarcerated in the United States – six times the rate of England.
School suspensions still lead to justice involvement and the racial disparities in all of this is astronomical. In Los Angeles, where suspensions have plummeted and youth incarceration is dropping, the situation is still urgent. Six out of every 10 Black male students drop out of high school in Los Angeles. Noted Harvard criminologist Bruce Western has found that 60 percent of Black male high school drop-outs in their early thirties have spent time in prison. Not just on probation or in county jail – in state prison!
Numerous recent studies have shown that youth incarceration is not just ineffective, but incredibly harmful. And it is excessively expensive. California spends more than $200,000 annually on each youth in its state juvenile facilities. Counties spend on average $135,000 per year for each youth in its facilities.
As the number of youth incarcerated throughout the state decline, the massive amount of money being saved should be reinvested into the very communities that have had the high percentage of juvenile delinquency, which of course are the same communities with high rates of poverty and high school drop outs. Though juvenile crime remains low in California, as overall crime has begun to creep up in some cities, reinvesting youth incarceration spending into youth development, family support, and community revitalization will help continue to drive youth delinquency down and graduation rates up.
There is momentum building in California and around the country for common sense criminal justice practices that reduce America’s overreliance on incarceration. Even those who have been the most ardent proponents of flawed Get Tough on Crime polices have come around. The United States Justice Department, hard right-wing politicians, and even some victim groups have all agreed that there are far too many people incarcerated in this country, at far too great a cost to society.
But the purportedly progressive Gov. Jerry Brown and even the state Democratic caucus are poised to launch one of the country’s only state prison expansion plans. At a time when most states are reducing the number of inmates and closing prisons, California is preparing to expand the number of prison beds. Even in the face of a federal Three Judge Panel order which was re-confirmed by the U.S Supreme Court to reduce the state’s overcrowded prisons, Gov. Brown is defiantly moving forward with a plan that will hurt the residents of California.
Speaking in California recently, the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said, “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” The Attorney General went on to explain that, “Widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable. It imposes a significant economic burden – totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone.”
In agreement with this sentiment, last year California voters approved Prop. 36 to amend the notorious Three Strikes Law so that individuals convicted of non-violent offenses are not sentenced to life in prison. A few months earlier, the California Legislature approved and the Governor signed into law SB 9, which prohibits children from being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. A number of recent polls also show that California voters very clearly prefer rehabilitation over incarceration and agree that too much money is being wasted by the state on prisons.
In a recent Op-Ed in the Fresno Bee, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Republican leader of the California Assembly Pat Nolan, urged the state legislature to pass SB 260, a bill that would reduce incarceration in state prisons by allowing youth charged as adults to have their sentences reconsidered after serving at least 10 years and having engaged in rehabilitative programming. “For every individual granted release, the public will save at least $474,000 for each 10 years cut off his or her sentence,” Gingrich and Nolan write.
In the face of mounting evidence that incarceration is ineffective and grossly expensive and that the public desires a re-direction of corrections spending on priorities like education – disappointingly, the Governor is caving to special interest.
As a former law enforcement official who oversaw correctional facilities, I am clear that there are certain individuals who are a genuine risk to the public safety and need to be incarcerated and rehabilitated. But there are thousands of inmates in state prisons today that if released, would pose little to no public safety risk. This includes inmates who are elderly and infirmed; inmates who are severely disabled; inmates whose only crime is being addicted to drugs; and inmates who have already served long sentences, still including those who came in as minors, and have proven rehabilitated and deserve a second chance.
The Governor and the legislature should reconsider the ill-advised plan to expand prison beds and abide by the federal court, clear evidence, and the will of California residents and responsibly reduce the state’s oversized prison population.
David Muhammad is the CEO of Solutions, Inc. consulting firm. He is the former Chief Probation Officer of Alameda County Probation and the former Deputy Commissioner of New York City Probation.
Like President Obama and many others across the country, I too wiped away tears as I watched the horrifying news coverage of the tragic shootings in Newton, Conn. I immediately called my children who were still in school. I sat watching the television trying to fathom how I would respond if I got a call that a shooting had occurred at my children’s school. This brought on more tears. But for the parents of 20 children and six other families in Newton, it wasn’t an exercise; it was an excruciating reality.
I then watched and listened to our President, and like parents around the world, the shooting had affected him emotionally as well. Twenty children gunned down. He struggled to hold back tears.
It was then that my phone buzzed. I quickly grabbed it to see if it was one of my children calling back. But it wasn’t. It was a colleague in Chicago. I had emailed her the day before asking for research into one of the mentoring programs in the city’s schools for youth with the highest risk of being shot.
She provided me with the information I was seeking. Then she included a P.S.: “What a devastating horrible day in CT. But frankly I wish people cared this much when it was children on the south and west sides of Chicago.”
I was snapped back into reality with the email. The tragedy in Newtown was truly horrific. But there is similar carnage carried out every day in the streets of America’s cities, especially in the President’s hometown of Chicago, where I work in Oakland, in Philadelphia, and many other cities across the nation.
In 2010, nearly 700 Chicago school children were shot and 66 of them died. Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel attended a memorial for 260 school children who had been killed in just the previous three years. On several occasions in the past year, tens of people have been shot in a single weekend on the streets of the city. The worst three-day stretch saw 10 killed and 37 wounded in gun fire. But Google the term “Chicago weekend shootings” and the results are far too many deadly weekends to count.
Oakland, Calif. has seen a huge increase in shootings. Last year, three small children were murdered in shootings. The youngest victim hadn’t yet turned 2. Oakland has become the first city in the country to have its police force taken over by a federal court. Because of a lack of resources, the city has one of the lowest police to resident ratios in the country.
Gun violence in America is a pandemic, but there is no round-the-clock news coverage. No national address from the President with tears. No pledge for urgent change.
Why? Is it because the children who die on the streets of America’s cities are black and brown? Is it because they are poor? What makes the victims of everyday inner-city gun violence expendable?
Like the horrendous shooting in Newton, easy access to guns and the challenges of mental illness contribute to the violence on America’s streets. Like the calls for change in guns laws that have been heard following this massacre, so too do we need tighter gun control because of the death and destruction that touches the hearts of mourning mothers in American cities every day.
Speaking at a prayer vigil in Newton, Obama said, “Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm? The answer is no, we're not doing enough. And we'll have to change.”
Mr. President, this is so very true. But it is not only these one-day mass shootings that cause us to cry out for the need to change, but also the daily gun violence that plagues our cities.
“We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true,” Obama said. “No single law, no set of laws, can eliminate evil or prevent every act, but that can't be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this.”
We can do better in Chicago, in Oakland, in Philadelphia, and in every city in America.
(David Muhammad is the former Chief Probation Officer of Alameda County in California and the former Deputy Commissioner of Probation in New York City. He now consults with philanthropic foundations on juvenile justice issues)