EPPN Criminal Justice Series: School-to-Prison Pipeline

January 28, 2020

The focus for the second week of our educational criminal justice series is understanding how people encounter the criminal justice system in the first place. In particular, we look at why so many young people are arrested and then incarcerated before they turn 18, and how this information can help direct our advocacy efforts. There are many issues to address regarding the treatment of children and young people by police, in jails and prisons, and by the criminal justice system more broadly. One key issue is what is known as the School-to-Prison Pipeline: the treatment of children in and around schools that drives children into the criminal justice system. If children skip school or face disciplinary issues in their school settings, many of them – especially low-income children – end up with a criminal record. Punitive school discipline approaches such as suspension and expulsion without appropriate support for students and families make many students more likely to drop out of school rather than continuing their education. Criminalization of misbehavior at school too often creates a cyclical problem: one study found that 40% of child or teenage offenders were re-incarcerated by age 25.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline undermines the hope of children and young people and damages entire communities. The Episcopal Church supports alternatives that seek to empower impacted communities, enabling students to continue their education and keep them out of the criminal justice system. The Office of Government Relations is called to work for legislation that provides alternatives to sentencing children, forms creative rehabilitation programs, and establishes specialized facilities for children convicted of serious crimes. These programs would help to ensure that students who are arrested will be able to return to schools instead of dropping-out or ending up in prison.

Funding and disciplinary policies often disproportionately target students who are minorities including students of color and those who have a disability, are LGBTQ, and/or are English Language Learners. Strict disciplinary policies make sense for some serious offenses, but they need to be coupled with rehabilitation and support; however, in many instances, draconian disciplinary actions have been taken for offenses as mundane as teenagers taking medications as prescribed by their doctor.

Reforms can be introduced to further support students who are at serious risk or those who made impulsive teenager decisions.

  • Alternative discipline strategies can be implemented like On-Campus Intervention Program (OCIP) and Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline (CMCD) to serve as a more positive and productive alternative to suspensions and expulsions.
    • OCIP provides students with counseling and support services to help them address and modify challenging behaviors or impulses. This allows children to focus on the development of life skills so that they can succeed, rather than be arrested.
    • CMCD is designed to improve the environment of schools by encouraging students and teachers to collectively set classroom rules. In doing so, it creates a shared sense of responsibility and respect, rather than just establishing a power dynamic.
  • Cultural Competency Training can also be undertaken by school staff, allowing them to be more aware of others’ cultures and the potential bias and stereotypes that exist. In 2016 a majority of public school students were non-white, while teachers are 80% white.
  • Restorative Practices are meant to proactively build a healthy relationship and sense of community to prevent and address conflict or wrongdoing. This is achieved when individuals who have committed any kind of harm take full responsibility for their behavior by reconciling with those individuals affected by said behavior.

Likewise, increased funding and investments must be made to improve schools’ atmosphere and resources such as counselors, social workers, nurses, and librarians. The dire lack of these professionals was highlighted during a strike by Chicago teachers. Finally, school systems must facilitate the re-enrollment, re-entry, and guarantee of proper education for students returning from expulsion or the justice system, in the limited circumstances such measures are necessary.

In 2003, General Convention called upon dioceses, congregations, and individual Episcopalians to promote reforms in state juvenile justice systems. Take a moment today and learn about how the juvenile justice system interacts with school districts in your state.

 

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