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Bart Lubow: Zero tolerance policies and racial bias are pushing many kids out of school and into jail

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. With all the debate about cuts to social programs, what will happen on the issue of crime, particularly youth crime? Many children depend on various kinds of social programs, particularly programs that focus on schools, for getting out of circumstances that might lead to crime. And one answer, of course, is to lock kids up–lock teenagers up, particularly–if in fact they are responsible for crime. But does locking up kids actually make streets safer? And how might cuts to social programs and education affect crime? Now joining us to talk about all of this as an expert in this field. Bart Lubow is director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So let’s start with, first, a common quote-unquote “truism”: even if it ain’t nice, at least if you’re locking kids up, they’re not going to commit more crime; so the more kids that are committing crimes that you lock up, the safer we are. Is that true?

LUBOW: No, generally it’s not true, although it’s a commonly accepted axiom for both juveniles and adults. And it stems from the fact that, you know, if you think about the Son of Sam, for example, and arresting him and locking him up probably made New York safer than it would have been if we had figured out who he was and not locked him up. But the majority of kids who are in custody in this country are kids who are being locked up primarily ’cause they frustrated or angered an adult, primarily for acts of defiance more than for acts of violence. And so the actual impact of their being arrested and incarcerated on the public safety matters that concern us the most is marginal at best and probably counterproductive.

JAY: Back up a sec. Dig into that a little bit.

LUBOW: Sure.

JAY: When you say most of the youth that are in jail are there for acts of defiance to adults, not ’cause they really committed any other crime, explain that.

LUBOW: Well, for example, if you look at the data on who’s in detention today, you will find that about a quarter of the kids are in for violation of a rule–they’re in for violation of a court order, and maybe a court order that was issued in regards to behavior that wouldn’t even be criminal if they were not juvenile.

JAY: Like, for example?

LUBOW: Missing curfew, smoking cigarettes, carrying an opened container, being misbehaved, unruly, disregarding parents, these are all what we call status offenses. They are not–they are behaviors that if committed by somebody who’s an adult would not be a crime. Now, in our country, we tend not to lock kids up for those offenses directly anymore, but we lock the kids up for violating court orders related to those offenses. So if you’re a kid and you don’t go to school, you can be dragged before the court for truancy, and the court can order you to go to school. Can’t lock you up for being a truant, but can order you to go to school. If you then do not go to school, you will be guilty not simply of truancy again but of violating the court order, that is, of criminal contempt, and that will be a detainable offense.

JAY: And there’s significant number of kids in detention for these kinds of reasons.

LUBOW: More kids in detention for violating these kinds of orders and for violating the rules of probation than are in detention on any given day for committing acts of interpersonal violence.

JAY: So talk a little bit more about Baltimore and why are kids being sent to jail in Baltimore.

LUBOW: Baltimore is no different any other major urban center. We’ve got lots of kids in the detention center for drug-related charges. We’ve got kids for car theft. We’ve got kids for, you know, breaking and entering and burglary, and for kid fights, for assaults, and those kinds of things. We certainly, like any other urban center, have a number of youth who get arrested and charged for serious violent crimes, but they are a minority of the overall delinquency caseload in the city.

JAY: And what does research show in terms of the connection between schools and other kinds of social programs and infrastructure and youth crime, or lack thereof in youth crime?

LUBOW: Well, I guess the shortest answer is that research on delinquency has long held that a weak connection to the educational system is a strong risk factor for delinquency. So the kids who are most truant, who are dropping out earliest, who do most poorly in school are the youth that the research would indicate are at greatest risk of becoming delinquent and of remaining delinquent for a long time. So, for example, this has huge implications for educational policy. If we push those kids out of the school system, whether because of zero-tolerance policies that basically look at their behavior and suspend or expel them for matters that when I was a kid, you know, resulted in being held after school and maybe being admonished by the vice principal for discipline, if we kick those kids out of school now, we increase the odds that they are going to engage in criminal behavior and are going to become a burden to the society in a variety of other ways as adults.

JAY: I mean, when you watch a show like The Wire, which was about Baltimore, there was a–part of the season was about high schools. And it seemed part of the issue was when you start getting these higher and higher teacher-student ratios and more and more students per teacher, it’s more and more impossible or difficult for teachers to deal with kids that have some kind of behavior problem. So they’re more likely to kick them out. So these cuts to education funding, how does that affect that kind of situation?

LUBOW: Well, I think cuts to education funding are going to motivate school officials to push the poorest performing, most behaviorally challenging kids out of the school quickly. You know, it’s sort of like, if you don’t have the resources that you would most want to have, you’re going to start looking for ways to focus your resources on the kids who tend to do best in the educational environment. Sad reality is that kids who are behaviorally challenging tend to be educationally challenging as well, and they become the first targets of whether these are enhanced disciplinary efforts or the cutbacks that are likely to reduce the special services that some of those special education kids need to actually make it in the schools.

JAY: So what do you think should be done in terms of–for the sake of the youth that are in this situation of where they’re in detention and they may be heading towards adult prison, and in terms of safety for the community? What policies would make more sense that you’re not seeing?

LUBOW: Well, first of all, the most obvious target in response to your question is that we need a wholesale reconsideration of the zero-tolerance policies that were enacted in this country in the aftermath of events like Columbine. Zero tolerance has resulted in the sort of mindless suspension of literally hundreds of thousands of kids from public schools over the past decade for very questionable reasons, certainly for things that would have never gotten you suspended during the days that I was in the public school system. So that’s the first thing that needs to be reconsidered. We need to get schools to reassume disciplinary responsibility for their students and to not move so precipitously to force out kids who engage in what is fairly predictable and typical adolescent behavior. That is, the behavior of the kids hasn’t changed; it’s been the attitudes and the policies and behavior of the adults that have changed.

JAY: So is this connected, then, again to the defunding of public schools? ‘Cause the schools, I suppose, will say to you, with the kind of money we have, we don’t have the staff to deal with these kinds of issues.

LUBOW: You know, most education officials that I speak with would not blame zero-tolerance on their funding dilemmas. That is, they didn’t say we support, came up with, or embrace zero-tolerance because of funding. After all, all those metal detectors and cops on campus, they cost an awful lot of money. So the argument about we didn’t have money, that’s why we did zero tolerance doesn’t really ring true, given the allocation of resources to our school systems. What zero-tolerance reflected was a mentality that essentially said, if you increase enforcement and make the consequences worse, you are going to get better performance. What you did was simply make it easier for the most marginal students to find a quick way to the door, rather than invest in–whether it’s special education services, student-teacher ratios, the right kind of resources in the school, we didn’t do the things that we would have done for all of our kids if we were determined to ensure that they graduated from high school and weren’t just simply socially promoted.

JAY: Now, is zero-tolerance national? And what’s being done to reverse it? If this is helping contribute to youth crime, what’s being done about it?

LUBOW: Well, zero-tolerance is pretty much national. There are exceptions to the rule in terms of places that are re-examining zero-tolerance, and I think that there is gathering momentum around that nowadays, and that’s good news, but by and large we are still operating in a zero-tolerance policy environment in our schools based on the theory that if you don’t want to come here and learn and you’re going to misbehave, there are other kids who do come here to learn and don’t misbehave, and, you know, we’re going to reserve school space for them. What can be done about it? What should be done? I think the most important thing that has been done to date has been effective policy advocacy to point out both the numbers and the absurdity of some of the situations. So, you know, seeing pictures of eight-year-olds in handcuffs in school has been influential in making people scratch their heads and say, what are we doing here, organizations like the Advancement Project that have been doing research on zero-tolerance for years now and putting out statistics that show the huge volume of kids being suspended or expelled from school, and notably the racial disparity in the use of these disciplinary measures. So the further disadvantaging of the already most disadvantaged cohorts of our student population has simply been reinforced by zero-tolerance policies. And I think that policy advocacy is now starting to resonate with folks, and people are starting to ask, why are we doing this and can’t we do better.

JAY: Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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