Home News Center Blocking the School-to-Prison Pipeline is Key to Ending Racial Disparity in Prison

Blocking the School-to-Prison Pipeline is Key to Ending Racial Disparity in Prison

July 19, 2015
Jody Owens, II


[Part 5 in a series of posts celebrating NJJN's 10th anniversary and our nine principles of youth justice reform. See "Why Youth Reentry Matters"; "First,  Do No Harm"; "Got Gault? From Processing Youth to Due Process," Protecting LGBTQ Youth in the Juvenile Justice System -- Progress and OpportunityBlocking the School-to-Prison Pipeline is Key to Ending Racial Disparity in Prison, and The Best Way to Help Kids in the Juvenile Justice System? Keep them Out of It. --Ed.]

The National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) — a national organization of 52 groups working in 39 states on behalf of youth in trouble with the law — is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. 

Why does this matter? Because every member of the NJJN, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, has endorsed nine principles of youth justice reform, and this month, the network is spotlighting the principle of eliminating racial and ethnic disparities. This is a huge issue — after all, there’s no shortage of statistics that show our country’s mass incarceration crisis is wreaking havoc on communities of color. 

Minorities made up about 60 percent of our incarcerated population in 2011. Research shows African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. This is in a country that incarcerates more people – and a larger share of its population – than any other nation in the world. 

Those are grim numbers, but they only tell part of the story. If we want to fully understand this crisis, we must look at more than the statistics, courts and prisons. 

We must also look at the role our schools have played. 

The harsh, “zero-tolerance” discipline policies adopted by many schools are sweeping students of color from the classroom into the justice system and, ultimately, our prisons, with alarming efficiency. This was clear several years ago when we at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) investigated abusive conditions at the Lauderdale County Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi. We were surprised when young people told us they had been sent to the youth lock-up for dress code violations and other minor rule violations – even passing gas in class. 

We then learned that police officers in Meridian, MS, had begun to refer to themselves as “just a taxi service” because they spent so much time hauling students to the detention center. Some students found it difficult to escape the cycle of detention. Once arrested, they could be put on probation. Then, a suspension was considered a probation violation that could land them back behind bars. And suspensions were likely in this predominantly black school district, which was found by the NAACP to suspend students at more than 10 times the national average. 

An SPLC class action lawsuit shut down the detention center. A 2012 U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit resulted in two settlement agreements in June – one with the city and another with the state – to ensure schoolchildren are not needlessly pushed into the justice system. The DOJ’s claims against Lauderdale County and Lauderdale County Youth Court judges are still being litigated. 

These agreements are good news for Meridian students. Locking them up for behaving like children was not making them better students. Instead, it was grooming the next generation of prisoners. 

Research shows that an arrest doubles a student’s odds of dropping out. The odds quadruple with a first-time court appearance. And dropping out – the course many students take when repeatedly suspended – only increases the probability of a student ending up in prison. 

Despite an overwhelming body of research illustrating that harsh discipline is taking a heavy toll, particularly on minority youth, these counterproductive practices continue to be supported by far too many educators. 

They can be found, for example, in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish Public School System. In 2012, the SPLC filed a federal complaint because of the disproportionate number of African-American students arrested for minor rule violations. That complaint sparked an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. 

Three years later, the problem has only worsened. 

A 10-year-old African-American girl diagnosed with autism recently ended up handcuffed and face down on the ground with a police officer’s knee in her back after having an outburst in class. One black eighth-grader spent six days in detention after being arrested for throwing Skittles candy at another student. 

These aren’t isolated incidents. Eighty percent of the district’s school-based arrests during the 2013-14 school year were African-American students – even though they are only about 40 percent of the student population. When the SPLC filed its initial complaint in 2012, African-American students comprised 76 percent of school-based arrests. 

In Birmingham, Alabama, the SPLC found that police in the city’s schools had routinely sprayed students in predominantly African-American schools with Freeze + P, an aerosol weapon that combines pepper spray and tear gas. The SPLC found that from 2006 to 2011, chemical weapons were used on about 300 students in the Birmingham Public Schools district. When you take into account the bystanders inadvertently caught in a cloud of pepper spray, the number swelled to more than 1,000. 

The SPLC took the police department to federal court over this use of excessive force earlier this year. A ruling from the judge is pending. 

These cases offer an important lesson for a country growing increasingly concerned about police practices and the mass incarceration of minorities in this country. It should be clear that if we hope to end the stark racial disparity in our prisons – as well as reduce the staggering number of people behind bars – we must recognize that for too many youth of color, the path to prison begins in the locker-lined hallways of their own schools. 

As the SPLC’s work shows, advocates have the power to dismantle that dead-end path, and build new pathways that keep young people in school and help them access opportunity instead. Every community can and must follow suit — youth of color across the country are counting on us. 


Jody-Owens_juvenile-justice-reformJody Owens, II, is the director and managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi office. He leads SPLC’s Mississippi efforts to reform the state’s juvenile justice, educational and mental health systems.  He has successfully litigated class action lawsuits on behalf of children and adults throughout the deep South in matters involving mass incarceration, private prisons, and the school-to prison pipeline. His work has brought to light horrific and unconstitutional conditions of confinement forced upon children and youth in many for-profit and public juvenile detention facilities. 

He is a graduate of Jackson State University and received his law degree from Howard University School of Law, where he was a member of the Social Justice Law Review and the Huver I. Brown Trial Advocacy Moot Court Team. In addition, Jody is also a Lieutenant in the United States Navy Reserves.  Most recently, Jody was the 2014 recipient of the Citizenship award by the Mississippi Bar and a 2015 recipient of the National Bar Assocation 40 under 40 award. Owens is also the 2015 recipient of the Beth Arnovits Gutsy Advocate for Youth Award, which is given annually by the National Juvenile Justice Network.


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