Saturday, June 09, 2007

School to Prison Pipeline

Published: June 9, 2007

The latest news-as-entertainment spectacular is the Paris Hilton criminal justice fiasco. She’s in! She’s out! She’s — whatever.

Far more disturbing (and much less entertaining) is the way school officials and the criminal justice system are criminalizing children and teenagers all over the country, arresting them and throwing them in jail for behavior that in years past would never have led to the intervention of law enforcement.

This is an aspect of the justice system that is seldom seen. But the consequences of ushering young people into the bowels of police precincts and jail cells without a good reason for doing so are profound.

Two months ago I wrote about a 6-year-old girl in Florida who was handcuffed by the police and taken off to the county jail after she threw a tantrum in her kindergarten class.

Police in Brooklyn recently arrested more than 30 young people, ages 13 to 22, as they walked toward a subway station, on their way to a wake for a teenage friend who had been murdered. No evidence has been presented that the grieving young people had misbehaved. No drugs or weapons were found. But they were accused by the police of gathering unlawfully and of disorderly conduct.

In March, police in Baltimore handcuffed a 7-year-old boy and took him into custody for riding a dirt bike on the sidewalk. The boy tearfully told The Baltimore Examiner, “They scared me.” Mayor Sheila Dixon later apologized for the arrest.

Children, including some who are emotionally disturbed, are often arrested for acting out. Some are arrested for carrying sharp instruments that they had planned to use in art classes, and for mouthing off.

This is a problem that has gotten out of control. Behavior that was once considered a normal part of growing up is now resulting in arrest and incarceration.

Kids who find themselves caught in this unnecessary tour of the criminal justice system very quickly develop malignant attitudes toward law enforcement. Many drop out — or are forced out — of school. In the worst cases, the experience serves as an introductory course in behavior that is, in fact, criminal.

There is a big difference between a child or teenager who brings a gun to school or commits some other serious offense and someone who swears at another student or gets into a wrestling match or a fistfight in the playground. Increasingly, especially as zero-tolerance policies proliferate, children are being treated like criminals for the most minor offenses.

There should be no obligation to call the police if a couple of kids get into a fight and teachers are able to bring it under control. But now, in many cases, youngsters caught fighting are arrested and charged with assault.

A 2006 report on disciplinary practices in Florida schools showed that a middle school student in Palm Beach County who was caught throwing rocks at a soda can was arrested and charged with a felony — hurling a “deadly missile.”

We need to get a grip.

The Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union has been studying this issue. “What we see routinely,” said Dennis Parker, the program’s director, “is that behavior that in my time would have resulted in a trip to the principal’s office is now resulting in a trip to the police station.”

He added that the evidence seems to show that white kids are significantly less likely to be arrested for minor infractions than black or Latino kids. The 6-year-old arrested in Florida was black. The 7-year-old arrested in Baltimore was black.

Shaquanda Cotton was black. She was the 14-year-old high school freshman in Paris, Tex., who was arrested for shoving a hall monitor. She was convicted in March 2006 of “assault on a public servant” and sentenced to a prison term of — hold your breath — up to seven years!

Shaquanda’s outraged family noted that the judge who sentenced her had, just three months earlier, sentenced a 14-year-old white girl who was convicted of arson for burning down her family’s home. The white girl was given probation.

Shaquanda was recently released after a public outcry over her case and the eruption of a scandal involving allegations of widespread sexual abuse of incarcerated juveniles in Texas.

This issue deserves much more attention. Sending young people into the criminal justice system unnecessarily is a brutal form of abuse with consequences, for the child and for society as a whole, that can last a lifetime.