Deconstructing the School-to-Prison Pipeline
by Hon. Jay Blitzman
Voice of the Judiciary
The Supreme Court has abolished the juvenile death penalty, mandatory juvenile life without parole, and in acknowledging the reality of adolescent brain development, has outlined a regime of proportional accountability. Children are constitutionally different than adults. Research has demonstrated that reducing detention also reduces recidivism by promoting the socially connective tissue of family, school, and community that is vital to positive youth development. We can protect public safety at less cost. Youth who do not graduate from high school are eight times more likely to later be arrested and it costs three to five times more to incarcerate than to pay for public education.
The message of proportional accountability has implications in all contexts, including zero tolerance in schools, mandatory transfer and collateral consequences. However, in an era of dramatically declining juvenile arrest rates, this promising landscape has been complicated by a counterintuitive narrative – the recriminalization of status offense conduct that was decriminalized in the aftermath of In Re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967). This has manifested itself in various forms, including treating status offenders as probation violators in some states and imposing conditions of supervision which are status offense-like in nature (e.g. attending school without incident), and commitments for probation violations not related to re-offending. This article focuses on another aspect of this process- the surge of school referrals to juvenile justice which, as discussed in Arrested Futures, a collaboration between the ACLU of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Citizens for Juvenile Justice, has unfortunately involved many arrests for essentially non-violent normative adolescent behavior.
Nationally about 84% of youth in the juvenile justice system are there for non-violent conduct and over two-thirds of this number are youth of color. Although detention and commitment rates have declined, racial and ethnic disparities have increased. In 2017, the Sentencing Project reported that African-American youth are five times more likely to be held than whites, Latino youth are 65% more likely to be held, and Native American youth were three times more likely to be detained. LGBTQ- gender non-conforming youth comprise 5% of the nation’s youth population, but 20% of those are detained and 85% of that number are youth of color. Over 75% of children who appear in juvenile sessions have mental health or clinical issues as courts have become default service providers.
Issues affecting children should be considered in the context of the larger systems that affect them. The multi-faceted factors that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline implicate fundamental questions of race and class. As Marian Wright-Edelman has observed, the school-to-prison pipeline runs through economically depressed neighborhoods and failing schools. Over sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education held that separate in public education is per se unequal, our schools remain segregated. The issue is national in scope. New York City, for example, has perhaps the most segregated school system in the country. In a real sense we live in a world that is still separate and unequal. Access to adequate public education remains an access to juvenile justice issue. Professor Charles Ogletree has concluded that as regards Brown’s legacy, there is little left to celebrate. In The Color of Law, Richard Rosenstein attacks the premise of de facto segregation, arguing that geographical segregation is the result of race conscious de jure actions which have included zoning, housing, school siting, and urban renewal polices.
Where people live matters. The Boston Globe recently reported that the Brockton school system was only able to spend $1.28 per student on classroom supplies during the 2016-2017 school year, while Weston allotted $275.00 per student. The adverse impact of geographic segregation is reflected in the reality that we see the same children and families in the child welfare system as we do in the juvenile system, with the same rates of racial and ethnic disproportionality. Between 2010 and 2012, 72% of the children committed to the Massachusetts’ Department of Youth Services had been involved with the Department of Children and Families (DCF.) and over half of that number’s families had been involved with DCF before they were five. Every time a child’s placement in foster care is changed it is estimated they lose six months of educational progress which compromises their ability to graduate. Marian Wright-Edelman and others now use the phrase cradle-to-prison pipeline.
Police have been in schools since the civil rights era, but after the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, police presence in schools accelerated exponentially as did the expanded use of “zero tolerance” formerly reserved for guns and drugs. Police were placed in schools without first considering their relationship with educators and the scope of their authority. Police officers were largely placed in schools serving students of color, schools which had never had a Columbine type of incident. New York City, for example, has over 5,400 school police officers. The unregulated deployment of police in schools, coupled with zero tolerance, has fueled the pipeline and adversely affected schools of color. While these practices may be rationalized as logical responses to protect children, National Center for Education data shows that reported incidents of school violence had peaked in 1994, well before Columbine, and that national juvenile arrest rates had reached their high point in 1994, and by 2016 had declined by 70%. The effects of these policies were apparent. In 2000, over three million students were suspended and over ninety-seven thousand arrested. African-American students have been three-to-five times more likely to be suspended than white students for comparable behavior, underlining the mythology of race-neutral zero tolerance.
The reality of the “pipeline” was demonstrated in 2012, when the Department of Justice accused the city of Meridian, Mississippi of operating a school-to-prison pipeline. Named defendants included the schools, police, judges, probation officers, and the state’s Department of Human Services and Division of Youth Services. While the circumstances are rarely as overt. The pipeline exists and deconstructing it requires a multi-faceted response. The Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative JDAI), and the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change are examples of data based initiatives that encourage cross-system dialogue and examine evidence based practices to better protect public safety while promoting positive youth development. Massachusetts features a robust partnership with JDAI by partnering with court professionals and practitioners in an effort to decrease unnecessary detention and address racial and ethnic disparities. Adopting more proportional and strength based models in engaging youth in lieu of zero tolerance regimes, as recommended by the American Psychological Association and the American Bar Association (ABA), coincides with the Supreme Court’s message of proportional accountability. Restorative justice, especially as applied in schools and communities in lieu of court referral, is an example of a public health oriented approach. Massachusetts juvenile justice reform, enacted this year, expanded diversion opportunities and allowed for the expungement of records for the first time, in certain circumstances. Of particular importance is the legislation’s call for school districts to develop memoranda of understanding to inform the relationship of school resource officers and educators. This would provide a framework for conversation and exploration of alternative action. Given the school shooting in Parkland, FL, the need to capitalize on this legislative opportunity cannot be over-emphasized, unless we wish to revisit the unintended consequences that followed Columbine. Promulgation of memoranda of understanding is consistent with JDAI initiatives and resolutions adopted by the ABA.
We have made progress through systemic dialogue, use of data, and the development of memoranda of understanding. However, to truly deconstruct the pipeline we must tackle the underlying structural realities which fuel implicit bias and the school/cradle-to-prison pipeline. Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson has stressed that in order to have truth and reconciliation we must address the realities of our history. Hopefully, the Boston Bar Association’s focus on this important subject will prove to be a step in the right direction.
Judge Jay Blitzman is the First Justice of the Middlesex Division of the Massachusetts Juvenile Court. Prior to his appointment he was a co-founder and the first director of the Roxbury Youth Advocacy Project, a multi-disciplinary public defender’s office, which was template for the creation of the statewide Youth Advocacy Division of C.PC.S. Jay is also a co-founder of the Massachusetts Citizens for Juvenile Justice and Our RJ, diversionary restorative justice program. Jay writes and presents regularly at a variety of forums. His most recent publications are, Gault’s Promise Revisited: The Search for Due Process (Juvenile and Family Law Journal, NCJFCJ June 2018), The State of Juvenile Justice (ABA Criminal Justice Section, June 2018), Realizing Gault’s Promise ( Arizona Attorney, May 2017) and Are We Criminalizing Adolescence? (ABA Criminal Justice, May 2015). Jay has held a variety of teaching positions. He currently teaches juvenile law at Northeastern University School of Law, and is a team leader at Harvard Law School’s Trial Advocacy Workshop program. Judge Blitzman is a member of the S,J.C. Standing Committee on Eyewitness Identification and the S.J.C. Jury Advisory Committee.