Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Diplomas Not Detention: The Better Options for Kids Act

By Hope DeLap and Jasper Burroughs
JPI Interns

Judge Teske on Capitol Hill in June.
Across the nation, young students who commit minor misdeeds (truancy, running away, alcohol possession and others) are suspended, expelled, and put in prison at an alarming rate.
On June 25th we attended a briefing that marked Sen. Chris Murphy’s (D-CT) introduction of the Better Options for Kids Act of 2014. The bill seeks to rupture the school to prison pipeline by supporting states with policies that “improve educational continuity and limit juvenile court involvement and incarceration for youth.” 

The Better Options for Kids Act will encourage “five state policies that help drive down juvenile incarceration and crime, saving millions of dollars,” which include:

  • Limiting court referrals;
  • Limiting police officers in schools;
  • Providing training or funds without expulsion;
  • Promoting community-based alternatives;
  • Providing re-entry help for young people returning to the community from custody.
The legislation echoes the recommendations included in JPI’s 2011 report, “Education Under Arrest,” which calls on jurisdictions to use strategies like those listed in the Better Options for Kids Act, including investing in education, prevention and intervention strategies that work to keep schools safe. The legislation also reflects the findings of the JPI report, Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut, which showed that there are better ways to improve community safely than needlessly refer youth from schools to the justice system.

Steve Teske, Chief Judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Georgia, spoke about his experiences advancing nationally recognized practices in balanced and restorative justice in a jurisdiction that serves almost 80,000 kids. He said that addressing the issue of the mass incarceration of students is “not just a legal obligation, [it] is a moral obligation. These are our children.”

Jim St. Germain also spoke. The 24 year old Brooklyn-native began dealing drugs at age 11 and was arrested at 14 on a felony drug charge. He agreed with Judge Teske: “[this is] not just a juvenile problem, this is America’s problem.”

If he had been two years older, St. Germain would probably have served time into his twenties in an adult prison. Instead, he spent three years in a group home with five other boys, emerged with newfound purpose, and got a Bachelors Degree. He is now preparing to enter NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He also tirelessly advocates for juvenile justice reform and is a current member of the Vera Institute of Justice Juvenile Justice Board and NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s Reengineering team. He counts himself lucky,
acknowledging that “it’s a blessing that I got caught at an early stage. I wouldn’t have stopped unless my whole neighborhood changed overnight.”

Former prosecutor and current counsel for the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Melissa Borofsky, called for “judges, lawyers, law students, civic organizations and businesses … to create, sustain, and promote youth programs, and support national, state, and local research and evaluation on all aspects of juvenile justice programs.”

Sen. Murphy’s bill finally gives an opportunity for the federal government to play a role in expanding the kind of interventions in Connecticut, Georgia and Ohio that are keeping youth in school, reducing school misbehavior, and using targeted funding streams to support innovation. As was profiled in Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticutdesignated funding for systems innovations allows communities to advance policies that have worked elsewhere, but choose policies that will fit the context of their state and school systems. Judge Teske emphasizes that this is an approach that seeks not to “blame schools,” but instead, tries to “understand why they suspend by default,” change policy, and partner with administrators and teachers in delivering a sound schooling service. 

As was profiled in the JPI report Education Under Arrest, too many kids referred to the justice system when they could have seen their behavior addressed elsewhere is that we are spending our public safety dollars on the wrong tools to keep schools safe. The over-reliance on, and misuse of, School Resource Officers (SROs) is a key driver of the problem: SROs, which are school-based police officers, often blur the line between counselors and social workers who are in schools to help kids and law enforcement personnel , and too often move youth out of schools and into the justice system for petty misbehavior.

In Clayton County, the introduction of SROs in the 1990s catalyzed a decade-long, 2600 percent rise (not a typo) in school-based offenses. Recognizing the need for substantive change, Judge Teske convened an unlikely collection of concerned parties, including police officers, educators, counselors, mental health professionals, students and parents. They created a set of guidelines regarding the arrest powers of SROs and crafted a "system of care" that identifies chronically disruptive students and uses positive behavioral interventions to improve school performance and increase graduation rates. The Better Options for Kids Act requires states to train officers who come into contact with students to facilitate positive interactions, and increase students’ willingness to approach officers with information.

Of the overall effort to keep more young people in school, he says, “the more kids we graduate, the fewer kids we incarcerate.” These measures accounted for a 50 percent decrease in school referrals to juvenile court in the past ten years and a nearly 25 percent increase in high school graduation rates.

Borofsky agrees; she highlights the importance of redirecting “school resource officers to the issues of school safety and away from discipline” to interrupt the school to prison pipeline. 
Sen. Murphy’s bill identifies the need to develop community-based alternatives to incarceration. In order to create these programs, schools must collaborate with community stakeholders and professionals from the mental health and criminal justice fields.

Additionally, re-entry services are provided for under the bill. As JPI showed in Education Under Arrest, two-thirds to three-fourths of reentering kids withdraw or drop out of school. After four years, fewer than 15 percent of students have actually graduated from high school. A key provision of the bill is that states must “ensure that youth in correctional facilities can continue their education immediately and without delay upon release.” This key provision, advanced by the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps seeks to protect every child’s right to an education, reentry policies prevent students from re-offending and returning to prison.

The past decade has seen the emergence of bi-partisan support for juvenile justice reform.  The significance of the Better Options for Kids Act lies in the evidenced-based reform it endorses and the encouraging diversity of its supporters.

Hope DeLap is a rising senior studying criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine. Jasper Burroughs graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland with a degree in history. 

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