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.
David Muhammad is the National Justice Partner at Impact Justice, headquartered in Oakland, CA. David is the former Chief Probation Officer in Alameda County (Oakland) and the former Deputy Commissioner of Probation in New York City.
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