Baltimore Public Defender: Teens Targeted by School to Prison Pipeline
Statistics show Baltimore youth face more arrests, more likely to be charged than suburban counterparts.
STEPHEN JANIS, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, TRNN: For those unfamiliar with Baltimore City’s particular brand of justice, it has been an up-close primer on how things are done in a city whose police force is now under a full-fledged Department of Justice investigation. Not just over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody which prompted protests across the city and a criminal investigation, but how the criminal justice responded to the strife and what it may have done in the past to precipitate this unrest.
Protesters have been held without charges for days. Innocent people arrested. And in an exclusive report by The Real News, two weeks before the violence erupted and thrust Baltimore onto the world stage, documents revealed juveniles were arrested for simply not getting on a bus. In short, Baltimore’s aggressive policing and heavy emphasis on incarceration has been unrelenting, even as the world watched.
For people unfamiliar with Baltimore’s criminal justice system, this is business as usual. And our next guest says it’s not only typical, but goes far deeper, an intertwined relationship between policing and how we deal with our young people that may in fact cause the problems we are ostensibly trying to solve.
Jenny Egan is an assistant public defender for Baltimore City. She focuses on school-based arrests, and ending the school to prison pipeline. Jenny, thank you for joining us.
JENNIFER EGAN, ASSISTANT PUBLIC DEFENDER, BALTIMORE CITY: Thanks for having me.
JANIS: So just off the top, we see this story of this violence erupting at Mondawmin Mall. But what are we not seeing? What are we missing from this story? That sort of [incompr.] on what you do?
EGAN: I think some of the context that we’re missing is how police have been treating children and juveniles in Baltimore City over a long period of time. And the kind of over-criminalization and policing that kids face as early as middle school and younger, some younger, in Baltimore City.
Baltimore City represents about ten percent of the student body statewide, but represents 90 percent of school-based arrests, according to the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. They put out a resource guide very year that tracks the number of school-based arrests. So we have a police force inside Baltimore City schools. It’s not a part of BPD. It’s not sheriffs who come in and regulate school. It’s its own police force with 141 officers. And they police and arrest students in Baltimore City for minor offenses. The majority of school-based arrests are for misdemeanors, for small things. For school fights, for arguments, for disrupting school. Lots of children have been arrested in Baltimore City for disrupting school. And those arrests lead to the criminalization and lead to treating kids like criminals instead of taking care of them, addressing their needs, and treating them like kids, which is what we should be doing.
JANIS: Now, our report found that up in Mondawmin they were arresting kids for not getting on the bus. Kids–can you talk a little bit about what happens up there? I mean, kids actually are coming there to be transported to get around the city. Why are they arresting kids there?
EGAN: So Mondawmin is an important place in terms of Baltimore’s public transportation system. So a number of buses that run north to south and east to west use Mondawmin as a major transfer point, especially for after school. Now, Baltimore City’s high schools are schools of choice, which means you’re not necessarily zoned to a high school to go, that you go to in your neighborhood. Kids go to high school all over the city. So kids from Cherry Hill go all the way out in the Northeast, and vice versa. Mondawmin then becomes a very important transportation hub for school transportation, because kids switch buses there. The report is that they see–about 5,000 kids per day use the Mondawmin transport hub.
It’s a chaotic situation. It’s not the best situation for getting all of those kids moving through. But they’re not doing anything wrong. They’re simply trying to wait for buses and trying to change buses, and we’ve seen an increase of police presence and an increase in the criminalization of kids waiting, trying to get home, or trying to get to and from school. They’re continuing to have these negative police interactions when cops treat kids trying to catch the bus like they’re doing something wrong or like they’re criminals, instead of kids simply waiting for buses that may not have come or that take a long time. It’s not their fault.
But there’s this sense, and this sort of attitude, that treats all kids in Baltimore City like potential criminals. Like they should be treated suspiciously, like they should be dealt with harshly. And that’s the sort of dehumanization I think that we saw our city cry out against last week. That’s what we saw a lot of our young people, not just protesting in the streets, but really crying with rage about how they have been dehumanized, and how they’ve been treated like a problem rather than the wonderful young people with tons of potential that they actually are.
JANIS: One thing that you said before we started this interview which is interesting is that after they’re arrested for trespassing and getting on a bus, that actually goes through several layers where they decide to charge in that case?
EGAN: Absolutely. So whenever a child is arrested in Baltimore City, and we know that there’s a problem with illegal arrests. Freddie Gray’s horrible death and this tragedy all started with an illegal arrest. But I don’t think that Baltimore Police Department have learned a lesson from that yet. Those illegal arrests continue. They arrested 49 kids and 21 of them were, during the disturbances last week, 21 of them were returned by the State’s Attorney with no charge. So I don’t know that Baltimore Police Department have yet learned their lesson about illegal arrests and why they need to curb them immediately.
But once a child is arrested there are a number of systems that review those charges, and that have the opportunity to turn back the over-criminalization of children. The first is the police intake. And at booking, police have the option of diverting kids or not formalizing or bringing charges. That’s a first level of review.
After that, it goes to the Department of Juvenile Services, and there’s an intake interview that talks to the family and then talks to the child, and they have the option of diverting or rejecting charges. One interesting statistic is that in Baltimore City, the DJS formalizes or charges 84.9 percent of all kids who have charges brought against them, or who are brought in front of them. When you take Baltimore out of that equation, statewide the average is 41 percent.
JANIS: So you’re saying that when–the average Baltimore City kid, he has twice as likely a chance to be charged formally than a kid who would live in Baltimore County?
EGAN: That’s what the statistics say. From the Department of Juvenile Services.
JANIS: So–I mean, you’re in the sort of nexus of this. What is driving this idea that somehow Baltimore City kids are actually more criminal, or more worthy of being charged than a kid who lives, let’s say, 40 miles outside of the city? What’s driving this?
EGAN: I think that there are a number of factors. There are a lot of complicating factors for children in Baltimore. In terms of followup with families, sometimes our children face particular difficulties with poverty. They may not have phone numbers that are easily accessible, or their parents may have changed addresses, it’s harder to follow up and deal with people that are homeless or living in extreme poverty. I don’t think we’re going those extra steps to make sure that thing is done, and to make sure those things are followed up on.
But I also think that there is this perception and this feeling about kids in Baltimore that’s rooted in some really deeply held bias and implicit bias, that we think of kids in Baltimore City–and these are generally and overwhelmingly children of color–as somehow more dangerous, or somehow more worthy of punishment. There’s definitely this feeling that kids need to be taught a lesson rather than the idea that kids make mistakes and that childish mistakes and childish behavior should be dealt with in a holistic way, that should be dealt with in a way that doesn’t criminalize and doesn’t teach kids that mistakes will affect the rest of their live.
And it’s true, and what people need to understand, is that a single arrest and a single court appearance has tremendous effects on the mental health and the self-perception of a young person. A single court appearance even for a low-level arrest quadruples the risk of drop out, even controlling for all other factors. And an arrest really has tremendous impact on a child’s mental health, on their ability to do well in school, and how they think about themselves going forward.
So when we talk about police not diverting cases or illegally arresting or DJS charging, those are small decisions that seem bureaucratic, and they have an enormous impact on our young people. And that continues to ripple out and has enormous effects for our city and what we can expect of our young people.
JANIS: So we’re talking–it sounds to me like we’re talking about the prison to school pipeline. Everyone sort of discusses that, but you’re kind of on the ground floor. Is that really what’s going on here?
EGAN: I think that’s absolutely a huge problem in Baltimore. The criminalization of young people and the criminalization of childish behavior. Maryland regulations actually say that administrators need to report delinquent acts, acts that would be criminal if committed by an adult, but hat delinquent acts do not include things that are generally or historically have been a part of school discipline.
So that means that administrators and school police shouldn’t be referring and arresting kids for school fights, for theft, for those sorts of things. And yet that’s clearly what’s happening. Baltimore City had more than 620 arrests and referrals of kids in 2013. That’s a lot. For 180 school days, that’s three arrests on average per day. That’s an enormous problem, and what we’re seeing is that many kids have their first interaction with the juvenile justice system based on a school-based arrest. Or a school-based referral.
So kids are being told things that for you and I when we were in school would have been a detention, would have been some sort of school discipline, kids are being told, you’re a criminal. You have to go to court. And that has a real effect on how kids think about themselves and how they interact with educators and with people at school. It’s hard to trust and rely on people who you think may try to send you to jail. And that’s really what’s happening for our young people, and it’s a part of the disconnect and the trust gap that we have to repair in Baltimore.
The first place where I think we need to do that is by making sure that we don’t arrest and refer kids for school-based discipline. It’s not appropriate. I don’t think there should be police in schools. And we have to start repairing those relationships and making sure that schools are a safe place for young people to talk about their concerns and their fear of police, and to be able to have that be a healing and restorative place and not one where we criminalize and punish.
JANIS: Well, going forward, is reform possible? I mean, we’ve seen this sort of system writ large throughout–the world, you know, has kind of watched our criminal justice system. Is it possible to implement those reforms in the city that seems kind of wedded to this idea of criminalizing and incarceration?
EGAN: I don’t just think it’s possible, I think it’s absolutely necessary. I think that we have, you know, a lot of our young people got the nation’s attention. And they cried out last week, and I think it’s our obligation as residents and as the people of Baltimore to respond to that call. And we need to respond by passing legislation, by speaking to our elected representatives, but also by going out into the street and talking about what we want to see. We want to see schools where there’s restorative justice practices. We want to see school police taken out of schools. We want to make sure that children are treated like kids, and not arrested or referred for school-based behavior.
We can make all of those reforms. They’re all very, very possible. And I think nationwide we’ve seen, finally seen some different coalitions and some surprising coalitions coming back. People from the right and the left talking about how this over-criminalization costs our society. Both fiscally and emotionally, and economically, over-criminalization hurts everybody. It hurts business, it hurts individuals, it hurts people of color, and it hurts poor people. I think we can put those coalitions together and really work hard and change and correct some of the mistakes we’ve been making for the last 30 years in this country.
JANIS: Well listen, I really appreciate you joining us. Thank you for coming in and discussing this.
EGAN: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.
JANIS: My name is Stephen Janis, I’m an investigative reporter for The Real News Network in Baltimore. Thank you for joining us.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.