Posts Tagged school to prison pipeline

Treat Juvenile Crime as a Mental and Social Disease

Published by EducationNews.org — Change the way we’re having this conversation.  Focus on the crime as a symptom.

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Crime among juveniles is a symptom of a problem.  Our system doesn’t question the root cause of the issue, but asks instead:  Is the kid guilty or innocent?  If guilty, what’s the punishment?

As a result, this scenario takes place all over the nation, daily:  Bust a kid and send him to prison, which makes him worse.  In time, send him back to the community that didn’t know what to do with him in the first place.  Repeat.  And according to statistics, keep repeating.

Within 5 years, 77% of released prisoners in U.S. are re-arrested.

Recidivism rates specific to juveniles are extremely hard to come by.  Some states don’t track the kids as they age and cross into the adult system.  Recidivism itself lacks a standard definition.  A large National Institute of Justice study of 30 states, though, provided the stat above.

So let’s go back to our scenario and unpack it for a closer look.  A kid 17 or younger commits a crime.  He — they’re usually “he” — vandalizes, steals, fights.  He’s caught, adjudicated and sent to a Corrections facility.  In my state, Rhode Island, the facility is called the Training School, which sounds like a dog obedience academy.

The offender spends a few days or months there, during which the long-range prospects for his mental state do no improve.  If his sentence is long enough, he learns all sorts of cool new tricks to add to his bad-kid repertoire.  Even if he only serves a few days, he still gets a reputation burnished with street cred.  Prison makes him more of a man.  Other students and younger siblings might look up to him.

In fact, a bit of juvenile detention is such a badge of honor that offenders I’ve seen wear shorts to school in zero-degree weather to show off their new fashion accessory:  an electronic ankle bracelet.  If parents and school staff thought he was a pain before his vacay in the can, now he’s untouchable.  The electronic tracker only requires him to be compliant about being in school, but he’s free to strut the hallways during class as he pleases.  School staff are torn between coaxing him into cooperation or just handing him back to the police and courts.  Odds are that he’s low-income and black or Hispanic, so Daddy’s not there to lawyer up and ship him off to boarding school to hide the shame.

Nope: he’s coming back to his family and community. But while the offender was gone, the community got nothing but a break from him and his behavior.  While some states and counties are a bit better than others, hardly anyone does much to prepare families and communities to receive back troubled kids.  No agency or public service deals with the conditions in which the trouble began, festered and grew. Almost inevitably, the cycle repeats.

The pipeline isn’t the problem; the prison is.

Prisons are easy repositories for the unwanted.  If crimes are symptomatic of mental and social illness, our response essentially damns the kid to a disease he’s left to cure on his own.  Kids who are violent might well be deranged, which is to say mentally ill, needing an intense hospital setting.  Perhaps the kid got caught up in a Fight Club street culture that is the entrance requirement to gang membership or just survival.  Street fighting is a social ill, and punishing individual kids isn’t going to heal that situation.  If anything, it makes kids meaner.

So removing the prison option and replacing it with a locked mental health facility would inevitably change the nature of the pipeline.  No one swaggers home from the hospital, locked or not.  If a kid’s impossible behavior results not in jail time but therapy, social work, and digging into the deeper issues of home and community, the pipeline itself would also take on a therapeutic rather than punitive quality.  If the pipeline focused on healing mental and social illness, it would likely keep more kids out of hospitals and prisons.  If nothing else, it would be cheaper.

The RI Training School costs $186,380 per kid, per year.

RI is above the national average, which is $148,767, but less than half than New York’s annual cost of $352,663.  Surely we could spend the money more effectively, especially by putting a good portion of it into communities that desperately need help reducing their own crime.  Parents need help long before the kid starts skipping school regularly.  Families desperately need help with mental health and addiction services, with education and job training, with residential stability.  So put that money where it can avoid or at least mitigate misery for the kid, family and community.

No kid was born with a “bad” gene.  They live in conditions that grow social weeds.  Poor kids grow up on mean streets.  Rich bad kids are nurtured in entitlement and a sense that the rules don’t apply to them.  Rich or poor, change the conditions.  Change the way we’re having this conversation.  Focus on the crime as a symptom.  Otherwise, we are living the definition of insanity.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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What Does Mass Incarceration Say About American Democracy?

Published by EducationNews.org — How we chose to build up the largest prison population in the world.

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America’s torrid love affair with jails and prisons is hardly breaking news.  Since the late 1990s, academics called for the end of mass incarceration because their data revealed shameful racial disparities.  Fat lot of good it’s done.  Now we’re up to just under 2.4 million people behind bars, mostly men of color.  The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners.  The rate of incarceration is four times what it was four decades ago.

This phenomenon is both historically unprecedented and internationally unique.  Even the United Kingdom, with the next highest rate in the Western world, incarcerates only 148 per 100,000 people as compared with our 707 per 100,000.  The U.S. has more people behind bars than Russia or China.

America’s investment in punishment costs about $63 billion a year — $63,000,000,000.  And that’s not counting such social costs as ruined families, lost income, shame, and stigma.

How in God’s name did we get here?

Speaking recently, Jeremy Travis provided some answers to that question.  Working with the National Academies of Science, Travis is one of the three editors of The Growth of Incarceration in the U.S., which present the conclusions of a huge project that studied the issue.  Each chapter has 2-page summaries, and the whole book is downloadable.  Currently Travis serves as President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the New York City college system.  Previously he was the director of the National Institute of Justice and before that, the Urban League.

Referring to the events and racial tensions of Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere, Travis says “The instinct of white people is to talk about the event.  Black people talk about history.  Now we all need to talk about history.”  The current that sparked these events is not recent, but generations old — what Travis calls “the failed promise of Emancipation.”

Let’s start with 1920, which is when incarceration data became reliable.  From then to 1972, we imprisoned roughly 100,000 to 110,000 people annually.  Humongous historical changes took place during that time, including the Great Depression and World War II.  Even Prohibition came and went without changing that number.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s came the social unsettling of America.  The Civil Rights movement exposed profound racial and social inequities.  We also had hippies, “free love” and the decline of traditional communities, as documented in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.  Crime levels rose.  The public felt unsafe.  So President Richard Nixon, among others, campaigned with slogans about being “tough on crime.”  Soon all politicians needed to be tougher than their opponents.  And tough meant punitive, retributive, primitive — an eye for an eye.

The bottom line, Travis says, is that, “We are here because we chose to be here.  Through our democratic process we elected these people — not that I voted for them — but we chose them.  Judges, prosecutors.  And they delivered on their promises by making more things criminal than before.  And by meting out longer sentences.”

The three drivers of mass incarceration:

1.  Legislators, and to some extent governors, got “zero-tolerance” laws passed, such as “three strikes and you’re out.”  “Out” means life without parole.  Lawmakers cared little about the specifics or degree of the offense, never mind the offender’s circumstances.  Just throw away the key.  By now we have what Travis calls “geriatric prisons.  Nursing homes behind bars.  What’s the possible safety benefit?  Zero or close to zero.”  (For the record, Europe rarely imposes life sentences, limiting even murder convictions to 10 years.  A mere decade in prison ruins an offender’s life, so “life” is just vindictive.)

2.  Again, it was elected officials who imposed mandatory minimal sentences, thereby removing judicial discretion.  With non-violent offenses, there’s no public safety benefit to sending a guy to prison when he can serve his sanctions in the community.  Let the judge decide if Johnny wouldn’t be better off living with his family, doing his restitution close to home.  Institutionalizing him in a horrible place won’t improve his behavior.  Indeed, all evidence points to the contrary.  Give discretion back to judges.

3.  By far the biggest driver was the War on Drugs. Drug convictions, which had been rare, grew nearly tenfold from 1980 to 2010.  Rather suddenly drugs became far more available.  Politicians took a zero-tolerance approach to addiction and self-medication, especially among the urban poor.

So people are eligible for prison for far more offenses; offenders serve more time, and they’re barred from humane judges’ wisdom, mercy or ability to consider circumstances.  We, the people, did this – mainly to young men of color.

Travis says, “I think mass incarceration is one of the most profound moral crises in America.  If this is the new normal, we have to be concerned about the value of our democracy and its impact on our communities.”

But now what?  How do we turn around the fearful, punitive, and oh, by the way, racist mentality that got us here?  More next week.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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To End School-to-Prison Pipeline, Focus on Mental Health

Published by EducationNews.org —  We’re such a punitive culture, we don’t even look for alternatives to driving them insane, knowingly.

God knows what possessed me, but instead of multi-tasking I stayed glued to every hideous moment of PBS’s Solitary Nation.  The Warden of Maine State Prison, Rodney Bouffard, so questions the practice of solitary confinement that he allowed TV cameras to document 6 months in his solitary-confinement unit.  The hour-long piece shows blood, guts, feces, desperate screaming, and a level of misery that makes the worst media violence look tame and staged.

Don’t watch it.  Honestly.  Just take my word.  I squirmed knowing that as an American, I allow a public system to commit this torture.  Costing enormous taxpayer dollars, solitary turns human beings into self-mutilating, self-loathing, fiercely-murderous animals.  Mind you, these guys committed a violent crime while in prison.  But we’re such a punitive culture, we don’t even look for alternatives to driving them insane, knowingly, by putting them in a prison-within-a-prison.

Bouffard says that 80% of his offenders will be released.  “You can have them do their time in isolation, but I don’t want them living next to me when you release them.  The normal person thinks that if you punish them, they’re going to get better.  The reality is the opposite.  It’s really dangerous.”  Got that?  What we’re doing is really dangerous.

Ironically, Maine’s laudable prison reforms have yielded the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, 145 people per 100,000.  That state works hard to imprison only those who can’t be maintained safely in the community.  Louisiana’s rate is almost 900, the highest, but the average is 480.

The school-to-prison pipeline generously feeds this system.

Violent criminals start young.  One Maine inmate tells of having killed two prison guards while already in prison at age 16.  Sixteen?!  How old was he when he committed the crime that first got him in prison?  Fifteen?  Fourteen?

Somehow he’s got a wife and 2 daughters.  As a lifer with no hope of release, he wants to be transferred to a prison near them so they can visit.  With chilling credibility, he says that with nothing to lose, he has no incentive not to kill again, and threatens the very people in the room.  He wants medication because it makes him calmer, more social.  But the officials feel he hasn’t learned his lesson and so hasn’t deserved the break.  Like he’s still a wayward schoolboy.

First we kick bad kids out of school.  Then we kick young offenders out of society, and finally we kick bad prisoners out of the prison’s mainstream.

Punishment doesn’t work, never has.

There are two basic theories of punishment that both rest on certain assumptions, whether for adults or juveniles.  “Retributists” assume bad guys deserve what they get.  They had choices and made a bad one; they hurt someone, so we’ll hurt them.  “Utilitarians” believe punishment deters future criminal activity.  Next time they’ll think twice.  Actually, research shows that over three quarters of ex-cons recidivate within five years, so forget that.  In any case, these theories assume that criminals are rational people weighing costs and benefits.

In fact, criminals tend to be young and impulsive, and not surprisingly, they usually have personal histories of trauma.  Fully 20% of prison populations have a diagnosed mental illness.  Far from rational, these are kids, or people with seriously impaired thinking.  In solitary they slash their wrists or misbehave wildly to get admitted to the mental health unit where meds will ease the rage, urges and pain.

Why not allow the dangerous to be chemically restrained?

Prison psychiatrist Dan Bannish says that his mental-health unit “is about treatment, not punishment.  Everything is geared toward skill development, relationship building and appropriate interactions.  Everything about it is about becoming social.  They’re used to coming from environments where people hurt each other, where they’re anti-social.  This is a whole build-up of how you relate to other people.  You have to practice it every day.”

Right, because big surprise:  these guys were lacking pro-social skills in the first place.  The science of “criminogenics” argues that the way to prevent recidivism is to make sure that when offenders are released, they are not socially isolated or still holding the antisocial beliefs that lead to their misbehavior.  In other words, they shouldn’t be in the same crazy-making situation they were in when they committed their crime.  As an advocate for children’s mental health, this makes me crazy.

Currently America’s incarcerated population is 2.4 million people, the largest by both rate and number in the world.  Of the total, 51% are drug-related offenders.  Robbers are only 4% and murderers 1%.  Substance abuse is a mental illness.

Therefore, raw prison statistics argue that we have a mental health crisis on our hands, not a nation with the world’s largest share of bad guys.

It’s insane to spend massive amounts of resources on punishment instead of mental health promotion.  Our priorities further crush vulnerable kids growing up in harsh conditions.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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