Bursting at the Seams

By Wesley Lowery

Prison Pipelines Leaves Youth Detention Facilities Overcrowded, Underfunded

A national mindset focused on protecting the integrity of schoolhouses by locking up “problem children” combined with post-Columbine security measures have led to spikes in both high school dropout and incarceration rates.

But even as education experts and state legislatures debate the best ways to tackle the so-called “schools to prison pipeline,” the prisons themselves face a more pressing dilemma.

The U.S., experts say, is “addicted to incarceration,” and that vice has left many youth detention facilities bursting at the seams.

One 2008 study concluded that the U.S. has the world’s highest youth incarceration rate—with 3 of every 1,000 youth serving time behind bars.

And nearly 70% of children being held in public detention centers are living in facilities operating above their designed capacities, according to research compiled by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a national nonprofit that aims to reduce the number of incarcerated youth.

In addition to struggling with overcrowding in youth detention facilities and prisons, many states also struggle with understaffing and underfunding.

Some states, including Illinois—which has one of the nation’s largest youth inmate populations—have taken legislative measures in an attempt to reduce the juvenile prison population. In January 2012, a new state law requiring juvenile courts to consider other options before sentencing a youth offender to prison was implemented, a requirement that was expect to help reduce the number of incarcerated youth in the state.

The law prohibits sending a minor to prison unless the court has concluded “reasonable efforts have been made to prevent or eliminate the need for the minor to be removed from the home” and conducted a thorough review of the youth’s specific case, background and criminal and behavioral histories.

“Sending a juvenile to a state prison always should be the last resort,” said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, in a statement praising the law’s implementation. “Juvenile offenders who receive individualized treatment in their home communities are less likely to repeat their mistakes than those sent to prisons,” she added.

Still, youth behavioral experts and prison reform advocates believe that much of the battle must be fought at the local level.

Many cite Clayton County, GA, which was one of the first in the nation to proactively attempt to tackle its youth incarceration rate by relying more heavily on alternative sentencing.

Local school districts noted skyrocketing youth incarceration rates following the implementation of school resource officers—increasing from 89 referrals a year in 2001 to more than 1,400 referrals a year in 2004.

In response to those numbers, the county’s juvenile court judge, Steven Teske, spearheaded a commission to reexamine discipline in the county’s schools. Among new rules implemented were that resource officers cannot refer a student to the judicial system until their third offense, and elementary-aged students cannot be referred to the judicial system. Teske says the results show the new policies have been a success.

Since 2004, Clayton County schools have seen a 70% decrease in weapons on campus, 86% decrease in referrals for fighting and a 20% increase in the graduation rate.

High incarceration rates of youth have been tied to low graduation rates across the country, and addressing either problem requires dealing with both.

In the second year of a pilot program, the Guilford County schools in North Carolina attempt to tackle both by implementing new literacy programs in six schools and new discipline measures in three others, with the hope of cutting down the number of suspensions.

The program hopes to reduce the district’s suspension rate by 30% over the course of three years, in part by bringing in a diverse set of teachers trained to handle a wide spectrum of in-class behavioral needs, said Monica Walker, the school district’s diversity officer. “It’s hard to believe that there is any elementary school child whose behavior shouldn’t be able to be dealt with in the classroom,” she said.

While the district once averaged more than 200 lost instructional days due to suspensions, it only logged 8 lost days last year.

“We’re looking a seismic change,” Walker said.

Education advocates stress that a shift from a discipline-based mindset to more understanding philosophies—especially among the police officers based in schools—is key to a district successfully addressing its contribution to the prison pipeline.

“The increase in school resource officers has played a huge part in [the school-to-prison pipeline],” said Daniel Losen, director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, which has extensively researched youth incarceration and in-school discipline.

“The incarceration attitude is a hard one to die,” he said. “But there are clear costs to incarceration.”

Last modified: March 27, 2013 at 12:41 am
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