Bound up in the school-to-prison pipeline

Merdies Hayes | 4/24/2013, 5 p.m.

The criminal justice system monitors about 7.3 million people. All told, the U.S. spends about $74 billion annually on criminal justice, employing more than 800,000 people. Of the 2 million inmates, 900,000 are Black (or one in 11). This compares with one in 27 Latinos and one in 45 Whites. Blacks make up 39.4 percent of the U.S. prison population, yet comprise only 13.6 percent of the U.S. citizenry.

Some sociologists suggest that the nation's varied ethnic makeup itself is a reason why this is so, as well as to why so many private citizens possess one or more firearms. These scholars theorize that if the United States had a more homogeneous population (i.e. Japan, China, Scandinavia) prison statistics would be different because there would be less racial anxiety.

"More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began," said Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." Her book speculates that the masses of ordinary African Americans are being relegated to the status of a "racial caste" because of the connection between high dropout rates in the inner city and the steadily rising number of Black inmates.

This year the Department of Justice investigated school officials in Meridian, Miss., for operating a school-to-prison pipeline, which reportedly incarcerated mostly Black and disabled youth for disciplinary infractions as minor as dress-code violations.

Though the investigation did not outline specific allegations of wrongdoing by the school district, federal officials discovered that police there routinely arrested students without probable cause when the school in question wanted to press charges for a campus violation. Once arrested, youth court places the child on probation. If another campus rule is broken, the student has violated probation and can be jailed.

"You don't have to go to Mississippi to find the school-to-prison pipeline. It's happening everyday right here," said Clyde Oden, Ph.D., pastor of Bryant Temple AME in Los Angeles. The church has served the past eight years as a "welcoming place" to reintroduce paroled persons back into society.

"In Los Angeles, any time a kid is stopped in a so-called 'drug area' they are carded," Oden explained. "This is called a sub-arrest or a system of tracking. New York City calls it 'stop-and-frisk'; the LAPD and sheriff's department refer to it as 'stop-and-record.' If the kid has (a subsequent stop or detainment) then they have a 'jacket' and this serves as a portal to the pipeline. This is part of the 'gang abatement' policy, which is implemented specifically in minority and impoverished areas."

The 2009 Gang Abatement and Prevention Act, sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), was introduced to allocate $411 million in funding for gang prevention/intervention by schools and civic groups. If it had passed, SB 132 would have increased funding for Justice Department prosecutors, FBI agents and others to increase investigations and prosecutions of gangs. Also, the bill would have replaced current federal sentencing guidelines for gang-related conduct (a provision rarely used) with new federal anti-gang laws that directly criminalize and substantially increase penalties for violent street gangs. Such attire as Oakland Raiders jackets or caps, sagging trousers, or Khaki pants with a white T-shirt could be construed as gang-related conduct.