by James A. Bacon
Amid growing national concerns about “mass incarceration,” particularly of African-Americans, a Center for Public Integrity study found in August that Virginia schools refer students to law enforcement agencies at a higher rate than schools in any other state in the country — and three times the national average. The report highlighted the case of an autistic, 11-year-old African-American student in a Lynchburg school, Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who, in a series of incidents that started with kicking a trash can, wound up being charged with disorderly conduct and felony assault on a police officer.
There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that the United States puts too many people into jail and prison, and that there has to be a better way to deal with minor crimes and misdemeanors. There is less agreement about what that “better way” might be.
Fortunately, the federal system of the U.S. government creates a “laboratory for democracy” that allows lots of experiments at the state and local level. One such experiment for reducing the school-to-prison pipeline will take place in the City of Richmond when schools resume next year after the Christmas break. A new program called LIFE, reports Louis Llovio with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, will divert students into an after-school program designed to “get them the skills needed to make better decisions.”
Richmond police arrested 149 students last year; of those arrests, 59 were for disorderly conduct for such behaviors as not sitting down in class or cussing at a teacher. In the hope of plugging the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” LIFE will be open to students committing minor offenses. Students will attend nine 90-minute sessions covering topics such as conflict resolution, drug and alcohol awareness, gangs and respect for self and others. Parents are expected to attend three of the nine classes.
Diversion programs have a mixed record, according to Llovio’s reporting — some research finds that they lead to increased recidivism. But program organizers continue to tweak them in the hope of improving outcomes, so it’s possible that the Richmond program will enjoy better results. Personally, I’m highly skeptical that 13 to 14 hours in an after-school program can do much to change a student’s behavior by the time he’s reached middle school or high school. But I’m willing to entertain the notion that if participants are chosen based on a teacher’s appraisal of their potential willingness to change, and if parents participate as well, the program might rescue a few kids from jail.
The key is to set goals and metrics by which to measure those goals. If results don’t improve, adjust the program. If they still don’t improve, shut it down.
Bacon’s bottom line. Two things worry me. First, one of the few clear public policy successes of the past two decades has been so-called “broken windows” policing, in which police crack down on seemingly minor offenses like vandalism in order to avert an escalation into major crimes. The thrust of the movement to roll back “mass incarceration” seems to go against the broken-windows philosophy. We need to be vigilant against a retrogression to the widespread public disorder of the 1970s and 1980s.
Second, we must remember the silent victims of school disorder — the majority of students whose education is disrupted by the behavior of a noisy, troublesome minority. The hand-wringing over “mass incarceration” paints criminals as the victims while ignoring the plight of their victims. While it’s true that the jailed and imprisoned population is disproportionately African-American, let us not forget that the vast majority of their victims are African-American. Affluent white Virginians living safely in their leafy suburbs have little to fear from the consequences of social experiments gone awry. Poor African-Americans have the most to lose.
So, let’s try experiments to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline, but let’s monitor them very closely and make sure they accomplish what we expect of them.