The Chief County Juvenile judge has been on the bench for 13 years. During that time he saw an increase in school-related arrests that is disturbing to say the least. The judge notes that since police were placed on middle and high school campuses in 1996, these cases have increased from 49 per year to 1400, an almost inconceivable amount.
You might know that the U.S. jails more of its citizens than any other country in the world, but did you know that America also incarcerates its juveniles at a staggering rate? In 2007, about 60,500 U.S. youth were confined in correctional facilities or other residential programs every night. Minorities make up a high proportion of these confined youth. According to the most recent figures, two of every five confined youth are African-Americans and one-fifth are Hispanic.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday, a Meridian County Mississippi Chief County Juvenile judge testified as part of an investigation into a system that places children as young as ten into juvenile detention centers with no basic constitutional procedures. In many cases these kids are guilty of nothing more than disrupting class. The Department of Justice precipitated the investigation with its lawsuit, which was filed on October 24. The lawsuit came after attempts to negotiate with the Mississippi county failed. The DOJ is challenging the constitutionality of the system that punishes children “so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience.”
In this perverse system, known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” kids are arrested when school officials call the police, whose policy is to arrest all children they are called to pick up. Part of the Justice Department lawsuit alleges that the police department acts as a de facto taxi service, taking the children from schools to juvenile detention centers.
“Once these kids are in the juvenile justice system they are denied basic constitutional rights. They are handcuffed and incarcerated for days without any hearing and subsequently warehoused without understanding their alleged probation violations,” writes Colorlines.
The so-called “crimes” committed by these children can range from school fights and disorderly conduct to wearing the wrong color of socks to school. Colorlines provides the following example to illustrate the severity — and arbitrariness — of the system:
“When he was in eighth grade, he was put on probation for getting in a fight. After that one incident, every subsequent offense was deemed a probation violation — from wearing the wrong color socks, to talking back to a teacher – and the consequence was a return to juvenile detention. He couldn’t even remember how many times he had been back in detention, but guessed 30 times – time when he wasn’t in school, fell behind in his schoolwork and subsequently failed several classes, even though he said he liked school.”
Another Juvenile judge, Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County Juvenile Court in Georgia, testified before the Committee that he was able to handle the problem differently. He took a proactive approach to the problem, initiating discussions with the school superintendent and chief of police. Because he had cooperative partners, the number of students referred to juvenile court for school offenses in his jurisdiction was reduced by 83 percent. Meridian County, Miss. is not being as accommodating, driving the DOJ to file the lawsuit.
“Adults are treating young people like criminals, and are responding to typical student behavior that has no bearing on safety with discipline that defies common sense,” she said in her testimony. “… Pushing and shoving in the schoolyard is now a battery, and talking back is now disorderly conduct.”
Research shows that zero-tolerance policies do not discourage misbehavior nor foster good learning environments. It’s past time the Justice Department and the Senate investigated this heinous injustice.