Priority on schools and education, not jails

It's time to end the 'school-to-prison pipeline'

The recent phenomenon of high-stakes tests along with cutting school funding has led to teacher layoffs and overburdened counselors, which puts stress on students, parents and teachers alike. It has left administrators and teachers unable to manage students effectively and has resulted in excessive suspensions, expulsions and even arrests of millions of public school students across the country.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon disproportionately affects students of color and those with disabilities. This tragic combination of pushing kids out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice system now has a name: The “school-to-prison pipeline”.

Sadly, this process is happening right here in Dutchess County. Eighty-six percent of students in the Poughkeepsie City School District live in poverty and more than 77 percent of the students at the high school are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Concurrent with those stark facts, Dutchess County is set to build a $192 million jail in the City of Poughkeepsie.

As a U.S. history and government teacher, I often bring up current events to make history more relevant to my students. After the jail’s bonding was passed by the County Legislature, my students asked me why a new, larger jail would be built at a time when Poughkeepsie’s schools in the city are threatened to be closed due to poor performance.  When I asked my largest class of 27 students how many of them had a family member that is currently incarcerated or has been incarcerated, all but one raised their hands.

Nobody wants to appear weak when it comes to crime, however, the United States currently has more than 2.3 million people behind bars — more than any other country in the world. In fact, over the last 30 years, the jail population has skyrocketed by 400 percent. For example, 41 percent of American juveniles and young adults have been arrested by the time they turn 23. Once convicted and in the criminal justice system, their lives deteriorate. Convicts are ineligible for state aid, student loans, public housing or food assistance, and often become socially disconnected from community and family support structures. So, in addition to having high rates of recidivism, convicts also have high rates of suicide and homelessness.

It is time to rethink our approach to criminal justice. The current system is not only expensive, costing approximately $75 billion a year, but it also bears an incredible social cost. A cost to people whose lives are changed forever, as well as their families, communities and, ultimately, ourselves. The way we treat criminals is a reflection of our society. “Wars on crime” and “wars on drugs” are really just wars on people. So, instead of locking people up and forgetting about them, the new thinking involves alternatives to incarceration.

A few options the county should look into to lower the numbers of those incarcerated, particularly juveniles, include: speeding the case processing system by hiring another county judge (on average an inmate waits about 52 days until trial), greater investment in outpatient mental health counseling and investing in youth employment programs.

This country has made significant strides to broaden the scope of participation in government for women, immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics and, recently, the LGBT community. However, during the last 40 years, mass incarceration has created a new caste system that has targeted mostly people of color. Once people are swept into this system, they are then stripped of the rights supposedly won by the civil rights movement. Dutchess County ought not perpetuate such a wrong. It is time put a priority on schools and education for the youth, not jails and incarceration.

Paul Donnelly has worked as a teacher in the Poughkeepsie City School district for 11 years. He also is an instructor for Vassar College's Urban Education Initiative.

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