Tag Archives: criminal-justice

Ahmed Mohamed and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Fourteen-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested on Monday after he brought a clock he made at home to school to show his science teacher. After another teacher saw the clock and suspected it was a bomb, he was interrogated for more than an hour by five police officers, then handcuffed and taken to the police station in his home town of Irving, Texas. His arrest sparked outrage against Islamophobia and a supportive social media campaign, #IStandWithAhmed.

Watching a fourteen-year-old kid describe the disappointment of being arrested for his ingenuity rather than rewarded for it is heartbreaking. This event clearly exposes prejudice against brown, Muslim people in the U.S. that is not limited to Irving. Across the U.S., Muslims are the religious group most likely to report experiencing religious discrimination.

But this event exposes another problematic instinct as well: the impulse to resort to law enforcement to solve problems (perceived or real) with kids.

This impulse and the structural changes it has produced has created what is commonly described as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the funneling of students from schools into the juvenile and adult criminal justice system. The school-to-prison pipeline is built on the notion that (certain) kids in (certain) schools can’t be effectively or safely dealt with by schools, or within classrooms, but must be subject to harsher school-based or criminal justice penalties. The pipeline functions both directly (through law enforcement within schools) and indirectly (through policies that create barriers to school success and contribute to the likelihood of incarceration).

The practice of placing police officers in schools has become increasingly popular in the last twenty years, in part as a response to high profile school shootings. In New York City, the school safety division of the NYPD is larger than Boston’s entire police force. The presence of police officers in schools has led to a dramatic increase in the number of criminal charges brought against students for relatively minor offenses, such as “scuffles, truancy and cursing at teachers.” For example, in Texas alone, 229,000 misdemeanor tickets were issued against students by school-based police officers in 2012. Students typically do not have access to counsel to defend against these tickets, which lead to fines, court fees, and a criminal record, not to mention fostering an adversarial environment in school that alienates kids from their education and vice versa.

These charges are being brought against students of color at an alarmingly disproportionate rate. African Americans comprise 13.2% of the American population, for example, but make up 31% of school-related arrests. And a full 97% of tickets issued in schools are “discretionary” offenses, meaning that schools have the choice to handle them without involving the criminal justice system. While it’s difficult to say just how biased the application of this discretion is, one useful point of comparison are the offenses punished most commonly by race. One 2002 study found that Black students were most likely to be punished for “being disrespectful and threatening, loitering, and excessive noise” while white students were most often punished for the less subjective offenses of “smoking, leaving school without permission, vandalism, and obscene language.”

In addition to variances in the treatment of individual students, the structural and cultural differences between schools themselves is also illustrative. In New York City, for example, 48% of Black children and 38% of Hispanic children go through metal detectors every day to get into school, while only 14% of white children must do the same. Black and Hispanic children are therefore set up to be criminalized at a much higher rate, a situation that mirrors the disparate police presence in minority neighborhoods.

On top of the growing reliance on the criminal justice system, school-based punishment has gotten harsher – and more racially imbalanced – as well. Rates of suspension and expulsion for Black and Latino children are growing steadily, while the rates for white students are declining slightly. Although suspension and expulsion don’t have the direct relationship with the prison system that the literal policing of school students has, the results of these harsh punishments are perhaps more damaging in the long term. Research shows that students who have been suspended are three times more likely to drop out by the 10th grade than students who have never been suspended. And dropping out triples the likelihood that a person will be incarcerated later in life.

By treating students like problems that teachers and administrators can’t solve, schools alienate their kids and create barriers to their successful completion of school – and ultimately to their avoiding the prison system as adults. In the same way that as a nation we have relied increasingly on punishment and warehousing to avoid social problems rather than finding ways to prevent crime, schools too often resort to severe punishment and law enforcement rather than getting to the root of misbehavior. And just as our racially biased policing, prosecution, and sentencing have led to massive disparities in incarceration rates by race, the same biases shape the culture within schools with different racial compositions and the responses to students of different races.

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The Dangerous Class

Not long ago I was meeting with a young man at Riker’s, New York City’s infamous island of jails, when an alarm started sounding. “That sounds like my block” he told me, intrigued, as a number of correctional officers (“COs”) started flooding into the corridor outside our glassed-in meeting room. To my surprise, without saying a word to either of us (or the other man whose lawyer had just left and who was sitting nearby in the same enclosure), a CO came over and locked us in. Then I watched as five, ten, twenty COs suited up in what looked like a cross between football pads and hazmat suits. They drew long wooden clubs out of a bin next to their gear cubbies, and several of them clipped massive spray cans to their belts. “Pepper spray?” I asked my client. “Worse,” he responded. “This is way worse than pepper spray. It’s made for bears.”

He told me that he’s been nearby when it’s been sprayed before, and even just being close is terrible. “I coughed so hard blood came up,” he said. Hearing this description, and watching guard after guard show up to get in gear, I wonder how much of the extreme level of security we’re seeing can be attributed to real risk faced by officers. Certainly there is some risk – anyone incarcerated at Riker’s will tell you it’s a dangerous place for prisoners – but to send in twenty or more guards, with clubs and bear spray, I would think they ought to have a good reason. So I looked for some numbers.

In a ten-year period between 1999 – 2007, 113 COs were killed on the job. In a smaller timeframe, from 2001 – 2007, 356 prisoners were victims of homicide (and, side note, 1,386 prisoners committed suicide). By comparison, from 1999 – 2007, 1,529 police officers in the U.S. were killed, and, just to throw in another dangerous job, 335 coal miners died at work. Deaths are, obviously, just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s also an important marker of how dangerous a job really is. And although any number of deaths is too many, 113 in ten years sounds relatively low to me. Note that there are about 470,000 people currently employed as correctional officers in the U.S. today, so over ten years a generous estimate would be that 0.003% of COs are killed per year.

So what’s with the riot gear, the clubs, the bear spray? What’s with the regular complaints of egregious violence at Riker’s and elsewhere?

It’s my view – and I’m not alone here – that this comes from the idea that prisoners are part of a “dangerous class” who, regardless of the offense that landed them in prison and regardless of their conduct while incarcerated are perceived as violent animals who are liable to strike out in any way possible at any time. And it’s easy to see the connection between the level of security and surveillance in prisons and jails to the treatment of people who are perceived as part of this “dangerous class” on the outside. For example, black men between the ages of 15-19 are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts are, and the average sentence for murder grew 238% in the 80’s and 90’s. These are all manifestations of an idea of dangerous, bad people whose sentence and even whose offense are secondary to a general inhumanity.

The really low rate of death among correctional officers is probably due in part to the extremely high level of security employed, but it comes at the price of a widespread dismissal of the humanity of the people who are incarcerated (literally using products designed to keep vicious animals at bay). This is not the product of individual failings among COs, nor is the policing statistic a reflection of individual assholes in police departments, nor is the sentencing statistic a product of bad prosecutors personally bent on creating more punitive systems. These are symptoms of a fundamental shift in the way that we understand people involved with the criminal justice system, and more generally people of color and poor people in our society. This is the new face of prejudice that Michelle Alexander was describing in her blockbuster critique of our criminal justice system, The New Jim Crow. It’s what protesters in Ferguson, New York City, Madison, Charlottesville, etc. are calling out when they insist that #blacklivesmatter. It’s the message that Right on Crime and other conservatives are reinforcing when they call for justice only for non-violent, low-level offenders and fail to call our system into question more broadly. And, in my humble opinion, it’s why we need to fundamentally rethink not only how prisons operate, but also whether we should have them at all.

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Whites Accept Racially Disparate Imprisonment

One of the defining features of the U.S. prison population is how disproportionately black and brown it is. The more the word gets out about that, the better, right? Wouldn’t you think people would be outraged?

Turns out, a study by two Stanford researchers suggests the opposite. What researchers Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt found when they introduced information about racial disparities in prisons was that whites were, in general, more afraid of crime and more supportive of highly punitive responses to crime than when they were unaware of the difference.

My guess as to the reason for this horrifying outcome is that we’ve been trained to view people of color as dangerous, and also as fundamentally different (“other,” as they say). See my post in a couple of days for more on the “dangerous class.”

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