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June 25, 2008

Examining the "school to prison pipeline"

A helpful reader sent me this link to an online journal of the Child Welfare League called The Link.  Of interest for sentencing fans is an article starting on page six titled, "The School to Prison Pipeline and Criminalizing Youth: Costs, Consequences, and Alternatives."  Here are two interesting paragraphs from the article's introduction:

There are likely no more distinct institutions in a society than schools and prisons.  One, the school, is considered an institution that builds capacity that can serve as a ticket out of poverty and the gate that opens to a better future. The other, the prison, is used to contain those who society considers a threat to social well-being and cements poverty and diminishes opportunities. For most of the history of the United States schools were celebrated as institutions with open access to all, while prisons were disdained and hidden from view.

By the close of the 20th Century, however, these two institutions had, in some respects, reversed their positions in the social order.  Public schools are under attack for being unable to educate children and characterized as bureaucratic, violent, and amoral if not immoral, venues.  Charter schools, school vouchers, eroding property tax bases, and general taxpayer revolt challenge the funding for public schools.  In contrast, the U.S. prison system is robust, taking up increasing portions of state and federal budgets.  By the end of 2005, a record number of 2.2 million people were imprisoned in the United States.

June 25, 2008 at 07:27 AM | Permalink


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I keep trying to break through the pretense that the prison population consists of thousands upon thousands of low level pot smokers. Below is a news story that might help some of our commenters understand that not everyone who is or ought to be in prison is the harmless Mr. Nicey. These are the opening paragraphs of the story, which I found on MSNBC:

NEW YORK - An ex-convict was found guilty Tuesday in the rape and torture of a Columbia University graduate student who survived 19 hours of nightmarish sadism in which he scalded her with boiling water and attempted to blind her before trying to burn her to death.

Robert Williams was convicted of attempted murder, rape, kidnapping, arson and other charges in the attack, which was so prolonged and agonizing that the victim begged her tormentor to kill her and later tried to kill herself.

The verdict followed a gruesome trial that included dramatic testimony from the victim, who said the 31-year-old Williams made her swallow fistfuls of painkillers, ordered her to gouge out her eyes with scissors, sealed her lips with super glue and gagged her with duct tape before torching her apartment. ###

The story goes on to recount the defendant's repeatedly raping and sodomizing the victim. Quite interesting from my point of view was the fact that the defendant was previously in prison for eight years for -- guess what! -- attempted murder.

Do you think maybe this guy shouldn't have been released? Like ever? It's all well and good for those of us who can defend ourselves to pooh-pooh future victims in pursuit of the argument that a brutish America is The World's Great Incarcerator. This sounds very trenchant and high-minded in elitist circles. The problem is that it's ordinary people who wind up paying the price for our supposed high-mindedness.

I would pay good money to see this defendant's lawyer hold forth at sentencing about how he's really not a monster and besides it's all society's fault -- and you know darn well that's what's coming. You can hear it now: the defendant didn't receive adequate counseling while previously in the slammer. Moreover, We Can't Imprison Our Way Out Of Crime; the system just picks on the "marginalized" even though rich people do worse stuff every day; and Everyone Deserves a Second Chance (to do what?).

We see plenty here about how defendants are routinely over-punished by the criminal justice system. But there is another side to this story, and it's past time to hear about that as well.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 25, 2008 9:11:14 AM

It's about policy priorities. Our society has been under sustained attacked over the last three decades by extremist conservatives (reaching its apex during the Bush administration) whose primary agenda has been to abolish all positive social programs, including schools, and to use the government to funnel public money into private hands (hence the push for privatization of schools). These are robber barons who have no interest in the long term stability of our society and we need to rid ourselves of them by any means possible if we are to survive.

Posted by: DK | Jun 25, 2008 9:14:25 AM


Right on cue.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 25, 2008 9:18:06 AM

What would you do if you were in his lawyer's shoes, Bill?

Posted by: Gray Proctor | Jun 25, 2008 9:44:13 AM

Gary Proctor:

Find different shoes.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 25, 2008 9:51:49 AM

Gary Proctor:

To give you a slightly longer answer:

What we need to be thinking about here is not primarily the lawyer's angst. What we need to be thinking about is what happened to the victim. Society does not exist in order to assure the congnitive comfort of lawyers. It exists to assure the safety of people like the victim, who underwent the ordeal she did because the system grossly underpunished her attacker for his previous attempted murder.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 25, 2008 9:59:18 AM

For the article, this is a sad link, a very sad link. Even worse is how few politicians, even our current presidential candidates, are talking about pumping money into education to fight crime on a longer term basis. Instead, locking low-level offenders up to make statistics look good has become the way to get elected and re-elected.

To the first comment, there are people who belong in jail, if someone murders a person and is guilty, then he/she should go to prison. However, prisons are full of low-level offenders who, beyond not deserving any prison time, will simply make prisons crowded for actual criminals, as well as wasting tax dollars.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 25, 2008 10:50:30 AM

My high school history teacher (who as a self proclaimed "redneck farmer" was quite conservative) always used to say "if you try to save money by not spending it on the schools, you are going to have to spend way more money later on jails and prisons."

Definitely words of wisdom.

Bill, often the question is one of allotment - prison beds are a relatively scare resource - if the bed holds a low level drug dealer it can't be holding a violent criminal. No one here objects to giving violent criminals long prison sentences - however, many people here do have legitimate questions on whether the prison and jail beds are allocated properly. Some crimes are undoubtably overpunished - some are probably underpunished. One of the best examples I can give over how weird the system really is is two back to back sentencing hearings at a Circuit Court in a small Virginia city. Defendant one was charged with firing a missile into an occupied vehicle - in actuality he got out of his car at a busy intersection, pulled a gun out and fired 6 shots into another car (fortunately he was a lousy shot and missed the other driver) - his sentence 6 months in jail. Defendant two - charged with theft and forgery and uttering of a check (one act resulting in three separate convictions). Her sentence 1 year in prison. When someone who forges a check gets more time than someone who fires 6 shots into an occupied car attempting to kill another person, something is seriously wrong and people should question whether prison and jail beds are being allocated in an intelligent manner.

Posted by: Zack | Jun 25, 2008 11:42:03 AM


Your former teacher is correct. Most prisoners have 12 or fewer years of education and many with a GED not a high school diploma. It is likely that in some cases the prisoner earned the GED while in prison.

The ABA policy on overuse of incarceration is that it should be restricted to persons that are threat to public safety and habitual offenders. I think they need to provide more information.

Is the threat to public safety
1) General or specific to an individual?
2) What is the severity of the threat?
3) Is the threat permanent or temporary?
4) Is the threat correctible?

In the case of a habitual offender
1) Is the offensive behavior correctible?
2) Is there a threshold for the severity of the offensive behavior the justifies the expense of incarceration?

It is relatively easy to determine the percentage of drug offenders in federal and state prisons (about 20%) by checking the Bureau of Justice Statistics web page. It is not as easy to determine the distribution by type of drug offense (about 10% possession and 90% trafficking) and I am not clear why the BJS does not give that breakdown.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 25, 2008 12:48:34 PM

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