For those of you who don’t know, Carl is our resident horse’s mouth when it comes to the criminal justice system in America. Few people can talk about it like those who have been through it. And few people are more qualified to talk about how badly it needs to be reformed like those who have seen with their own eyes the consequences of treating student children like convicts.
If you haven’t already, make sure to check out his overview piece on The School to Prison Pipeline. It’s a fantastic primer that gives you the basics of what’s going on in this country.
In short, the school to prison pipeline is a system where children — and overwhelmingly children of color — are put through processes that all but guarantee they’ll end up in prison, as opposed to graduating like they should. They aren’t treated with the same “kid gloves” as their white peers, as is borne out by overwhelming evidence.
But what are the solutions to the problem? What steps can we, as a society, take to ensure that this barbaric process comes to an end? What can we do to make a positive change in the lives of children all over this country? Let’s dig into a few.
1. Increase Social Workers & Mental Health Professionals
In poor areas all over the nation, there’s an epidemic of mental health issues and home life issues that contribute to negative outcomes. In a world where many children still go to school hungry, the availability of qualified professionals who can assist these kids is practically nonexistent. What this means is that the kids who need these services the most are shut off and ignored.
It’s really no different to how we treat our prisons like mental health facilities for the poor, as opposed to providing for this need from the beginning. Imagine the life of a child who comes from an impoverished household. When parents are having to work several jobs, often without affordable healthcare, they’re already barely scraping by. Having little time to go to a doctor or see a healthcare professional, some incredibly valid and very common issues often go unaddressed.
This can be anything from mild depression to severe schizophrenia and anything in between. Teachers are already asked to do more with less than most, but identifying mental health issues is far beyond their mandate.
Increasing the number of mental health professionals in poorer schools will have a dramatic effect on student success.
Furthermore, social workers make all the difference in the world for children who suffer from substandard conditions at home. Whereas most parents do their best, sometimes there isn’t enough food, or time for homework or even understanding. Parenting is one of the toughest jobs out there, which is why a skilled social worker can get engaged with a student’s home life before it becomes a problem at school.
This is essential because problems at home will inevitably come into the school. So one of the best ways to ensure that children have a solid emotional framework from which to learn is to make sure that their home lives are safe and secure.
2. Reduce Classroom Size
Teachers can only be expected to control so many children. In truth, class size is one of the single most effective ways to improve outcomes for children. We shouldn’t be surprised when, in a class of 38 students (or more!), there are rampant examples of children acting out. This can take so many different forms, from violence to pulling away socially.
This is one of the biggest contributors to the school to prison pipeline, as when students act out, they are often suspended or expelled. We’ll touch more on this particular part of the phenomena later, but suffice it to say, you can hardly blame a teacher for sending the worst of their 40-student classroom to the office for administrative action just simply to allow the rest of the students to get a decent chance at an education. However, this approach is very short-sighted and only serves to make the issues worse.
As it stands, reducing class size is an absolute must. Children lacking a decent education are at a significantly higher risk of ending up in prison. One of the best ways to ensure that this doesn’t happen is to decrease class size.
3. Practice Restorative Justice
Restorative justice is such an important concept that too few people are aware of in criminal justice reform. It derives from a fundamentally different philosophy from “rules are broken, thus perpetrators must be punished.” Instead, it takes the approach that all parties involved are people, that when infractions occur, there are responsible parties, and part of the perpetrator’s responsibility is now to help restore whatever was lost by the infraction.
This can take many different forms, but often it has to do with a conference between the injured party and the one who committed said injury. The reason that this is so important is that by sanitizing the system in a manner that extricates the perpetrator from the person they harm teaches no lesson. It’s a faceless response to one’s actions. And, as such, the person who made the infraction doesn’t feel the human cost of their actions.
By relying on restorative justice in schools, what you end up with is an opportunity for a child to see what they have done — not simply in terms of stealing or destruction of property, but more so in the light of the person that their actions harmed. Creating situations in which empathy is the solution has shown to yield positive results. It’s a practice that humanizes the victim and the perpetrator to one another. It lets them know that their actions do not happen in a vacuum, rather everything they do affects someone else. And it’s through this practice that real change happens.
Money, Money, Money
Many people read pieces like this and ask, “well, it sounds great, but where will the money come from?” Usually, solutions are developed independently of funding. Think about the microwave oven. Initially, it was prohibitively expensive for most households. Over time, the cost has come down, and they are now a regular appliance in almost any home.
Similarly, many of these ideas are new. They will be expensive at first. Yes, this will be a hurdle. But, ask yourself, what’s the cost that we’re already paying today? How expensive is it to house a person in jail versus that same person having a job, housing themselves, paying taxes, and contributing to their local community?
We have to find the money somewhere. Over time, it will get cheaper. But the cost today is one in human lives, suffering, and a life that is below that of what we owe ourselves as Americans. Ending recidivism begins with preventing people from going to prison in the first place. And that starts with the schools.
For more on the basics of education reform to stop recidivism, check out more stories on it here.