Teaching at a Women’s Prison

ncciw-photoOne of the best teaching experiences I’ve ever had occurred earlier this year when I had the privilege to teach an introduction to fiction course at the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women (see photo).  The UNC student newspaper, The Daily Tarheel, was so kind as to speak to me about the experience.

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Will Supreme Court Decision be Death Knell for Juvenile Life without Parole?

6a00d83451574769e201bb08764101970dIf I had to name a single U.S. Supreme Court case that effectively highlights the entrenched problems of the American criminal justice system, it would be Montgomery v. Louisiana: from the 1963 murder of Charles Hurt Jr., a white deputy sheriff in East Baton Rouge, to the conviction of Henry Montgomery, a developmentally disabled African-American teenager, to the ensuing half-century during which Montgomery has been warehoused at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

In other words, when Montgomery v. Louisiana is viewed through almost any critical lens, the deep fissures in our broken system are clearly apparent: the legacy of Jim Crow as reflected in the disproportionate representation of people of color in today’s courtrooms, jails, and prisons; the nation’s continued reliance on mass incarceration to solve intractable societal ills; and the refusal of many prosecutors, judges, and juries to consider criminal offenders — even those who are children or are intellectually compromised — as worth more than the worst thing they have ever done.

In November 1963, Deputy Hurt was shot and killed in a park in Scotlandville, a town in the segregated South that has since been annexed by Baton Rouge but which at the time was the largest majority African-American town in Louisiana.

At the time of his death, Deputy Hurt was on patrol, looking for kids who were truant from school. One of his daughters has described her late father as someone who “saw beyond race at a time when such vision was uncommon at best” and even initiated a “Junior Deputy” program for boys from Scotlandville.

Immediately after the shooting, there was a wide-ranging search for Hurt’s killer, with hundreds of deputies and police from neighboring parishes setting up roadblocks and making mass arrests in Scotlandville. Dozens, if not scores, of African-American men from 12 to 59 years old were arrested, held and questioned about the murder.

Among those arrested was Henry Montgomery, a mild-mannered 10th-grader with intellectual limitations who had turned 17 only two weeks earlier. Unfortunately nicknamed the Wolf Man due to his oversized teeth (an “alias” that was publicized prior to the trial), Henry lived with his grandparents, as his mother was autistic and had her own challenges.

Detectives brought Henry to his grandparents’ house, where he pointed out a .22 caliber pistol in the rafters and then accompanied them to the park where he re-enacted the crime. The detectives audiotaped Henry’s confession, during which he stated that he had left school to take a nap in the park and had run into Deputy Hurt behind the recreation center. When Hunt was patting him down, Henry panicked and shot him with the pistol he had placed in his jacket pocket.

In February 1964, a jury of 12 white men deliberated for a day and half before returning a guilty verdict and a death sentence for Henry Montgomery. TheLouisiana Supreme Court reversed his conviction two years later and ordered a new trial due to the trial court’s denial of both a motion to continue and a motion for a change in venue, which had been based on threats of cross burnings by the Ku Klux Klan before the trial and East Baton Rouge Parish’s adoption of a resolution proclaiming the first day of the trial to be “Charles Hurt Day.”

Five years later, although the mood of the community was calmer, it took another all white and male jury a mere 90 minutes to convict Henry of first degree murder, after which he was sentenced for an offense committed as a juvenile to mandatory life without parole (JLWOP) and sent to Angola.

[Related: Court Decision Brings Hope, Uncertainty for Juveniles Sentenced to Life]

Fast-forward 50 years. Henry Montgomery is 69 years old and the U.S. Supreme Court has held in a 6-3 vote, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and including Chief Justice John Roberts along with the liberal contingent of the court, that its June 25, 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama declaring that life without parole should be reserved for only the “rarest of children” whose crimes reflect “irreparable corruption” applies retroactively.

This means that Montgomery, along with the approximately 1,000 or more inmates whose sentences were imposed before Miller (in states that had subsequently found Miller not to apply retroactively or had not yet addressed the question), will now have an opportunity for release.

In fact, the court in Montgomery has gone a step further than many anticipated by suggesting that, rather than conduct resentencing hearings in which the parties must opine whether the inmate was “permanently incorrigible” at the time of the original sentence, states may instead consider whether the inmate should be considered for parole, i.e., release from prison under specified conditions.

The court even referenced (although it did not confirm) Henry Montgomery’s good behavior at Angola, including the fact that he established an inmate boxing team and served as a role model to other inmates, as “relevant” examples of “one kind of evidence that prisoners might use to demonstrate rehabilitation.”

The process by which the court decides that a decision is retroactive was established in its 1989 ruling in Teague v. Lane, which requires retroactive application when the court declares a new rule of “substantive” law but not one of “procedural” law.

With Montgomery, the court ruled that Miller’s prohibition of mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders was more than a procedural rule merely requiring the judge or jury to consider the defendant’s “youth” before the sentence. Instead, the court ruled that Miller more profoundly “rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty” for juveniles whose crimes “reflect the transient immaturity of youth,” and, thus, was the announcement of a new substantive rule.

In classic form, the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, contends not only that the court lacks jurisdiction to decide the case (meaning that the rule of Miller was procedural and not substantive), but that “the decision it arrives at is wrong.” He asserts that the court’s resolution of the jurisdictional issue is ends-oriented, driven by the majority’s desire to reach the merits rather than a commitment to follow precedent, which he calls “nothing short of astonishing.” He argues that rather than apply Miller to the facts at hand, the majority rewrites it: “This whole exercise, this whole distortion of Miller, is just a devious way of eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders.”

It remains to be seen whether Montgomery v. Louisiana will be the death knell for JLWOP. As it stands, judges maintain the discretion to conclude that particular juvenile offenders convicted of homicide are, in fact, intrinsically incapable of redemption and will never be fit to re-enter society. There may be resentencing hearings and reviews by parole boards, but there are no guarantees of release, as we have already seen in states that have found Miller to be retroactive.

Yet, it cannot be denied that Justice Kennedy has continued to chip away at what he considers to be “disproportionate” and thus unconstitutional punishment for juveniles: with Roper v. Simmons, it was the death penalty; with Graham v. Florida, it was JLWOP for nonhomicide offenses; and with Miller v. Alabama, it was mandatory JLWOP for homicides.

With Montgomery, the court’s most consistent swing voter has authored an opinion that leaves little room for the state to justify sentencing a juvenile to die in prison. As Justice Kennedy wrote over a decade ago in Roper, “When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.”

*This essay was originally published by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.*

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Time to End our Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons

2015-09-02-1441204609-8149892-575141_GFrom Colonial times until the mid-1800s, it was common practice in the United States to jail people who failed or were unable to pay their debts, a practice that many, including the Supreme Court, have since recognized as a violation of people’s rights to due process and equal protection.

But while “debtors’ prisons” may sound like a relic of a bygone era, today the practice has made a disturbing return in the form of court costs and “legal financial obligations” that many people caught in the criminal justice system are unable to pay, creating insurmountable financial burdens for already-struggling families.

Across the United States, including here in North Carolina, people convicted of even minor criminal charges, such as loitering, littering and unpaid traffic tickets, face an array of fees, court costs and other forms of criminal justice debt that can lead to driver’s license suspension, bank account or wage garnishment, extended supervision until debts are paid, extra fines and interest for late payment – and ultimately incarceration.

These modern day debtors’ prisons enact devastating costs on vulnerable people who are unable to pay their fees, as well as the criminal justice system as a whole, which has had to create an extensive infrastructure to turn court and correctional officials into collection agents, diverting resources from their intended purpose.

In North Carolina, these court fees have been steadily rising – far outpacing the rate of inflation – over the past two decades. All defendants, regardless of their income level, are required to pay general court fees, which are currently $173 in district court and $198 in superior court. If these fees continue to increase at the same rate, they will exceed $500 by the year 2025. Such general fees are only a fraction of the over 100 different “legal financial obligations” or “LFOs” that can be levied on criminal defendants in North Carolina, which include a $60 appointment of counsel fee, a $250 community service fee and a $25 criminal record check fee.

People of color and those with low incomes are particularly harmed by these practices. Those who are already living at the margins of society frequently incur criminal-justice debt as a result of minor, nonviolent offenses that in many instances stem from the criminalization of poverty. There is also evidence that implicit racial bias has led to disproportionate fees being imposed on people of color by judges and court administrators.

In 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that extending a prison term for an inability to pay criminal-justice debt violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Yet jurisdictions continue to ignore or skirt the edges of these requirements and consider almost every failure to pay willful. Some courts even impose a “fines or time” alternative sentence that forces defendants to “choose” between jail and immediate payment in full.

The proliferation of court fees and the costs incurred by the state to collect them has prompted some judges, politicians and lawmakers across the U.S. to question whether the practice has gone too far.

For instance, New Jersey initiated a program in 2013 to encourage thousands of people who owe fines to appear at court sessions where judges reviewed files and ordered fee reductions. More than 4,500 people turned themselves in, and hundreds with unpaid court fees and fines were able to gain significant reductions. Other states have implemented similar programs.

In North Carolina, judges can waive many fees, and other criminal statutes allow for lowering or modifying fees prior to payment in full. This does not mean, however, that these fees are regularly waived, and the General Assembly has mandated that many fees, such as the application fee for a public defender, not be waivable.

North Carolina’s courts and lawmakers must do more to eliminate this two-tiered system of justice and bring an end to modern day debtors’ prisons.

This essay was originally published in the News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).
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Prosecuting Children who are Delinquent by Reason of Poverty

Kelci Lewis

Kelci Lewis

Several months ago, an 8-year-old boy in Alabama was charged with the murder of a 1-year-old girl named Kelci Lewis. The authorities announced that the girl’s mother and a friend had left six children, none older than 8, at home unsupervised. They believe the boy “recklessly” and “viciously” beat the toddler when she would not stop crying.

The case will be heard in Jefferson County Family Court and could result in a disposition that includes long-term court supervision of the boy and confinement in a secure facility until age 21. Katerra M. Lewis, Kelsi’s mother, has been charged with manslaughter.

In Alabama, there is no minimum age at which children may be prosecuted in juvenile court. Criminal cases can be transferred from family court to adult criminal court only when the defendant is at least 14 at the time the alleged offense occurred. Therefore, the options available to the district attorney’s office in this instance are to prosecute the boy in family court or not to charge him at all.

North Carolina’s jurisdictional limits are similar: The minimum age for juvenile court prosecution is 6, and juveniles must be at least 13 to be eligible for transfer to criminal court.

An 8-year-old charged

What could possibly justify bringing a murder charge against an 8-year-old child, who in many states is presumed not to have capacity to form criminal intent or to understand court proceedings? Lara M. Alvis, a former juvenile court prosecutor from neighboring Shelby County, Alabama, has explained, “They either had to say ‘we’re not going to charge’ or ‘we are going to charge,’ and once they say they’re not, that’s going to be a huge problem, because then the child won’t get any services by the state.”

This notion that certain families must be directed into the juvenile justice system in order to “help” the youth and facilitate services, accountability and discipline is a common misperception.

In 2013, U.S. courts with juvenile jurisdiction handled 1.1 million delinquency cases. Nearly 18 percent were dismissed at intake and an additional 27 percent were handled informally, with the juvenile agreeing to some type of voluntary sanction, such as community service or restitution. In 55 percent of the cases, authorities filed a petition and handled the case formally, as they are doing in Birmingham.

In North Carolina, the numbers of cases dismissed or handled informally in 2013 were even lower than the national average – only 38.5 percent of the 158,973 juvenile court complaints received did not result in formal charges.

In other words, police officers, prosecutors, probation officers and judges make decisions that cumulatively ensure that more than half of the children enter and remain in the juvenile court system, while the rest are diverted out of it or manage to avoid it altogether. Research shows that the race and ethnicity of the child partially explains this result, as the rate at which black youth in the U.S. were referred to juvenile courts for a delinquency offense in 2013 was more than twice the rate for white youth.

The role of the child’s socioeconomic status has received less attention, although jurisdictions that formally keep track of the income level of a youth’s family have found that nearly 80 percent of those in juvenile court were on public assistance or had annual family incomes of less than $30,000.

A permanent underclass

My own research has confirmed that the assumption that court involvement is the best way for poor children and their families to access needed services merely perpetuates a cycle of disadvantage, creating a permanent underclass and contributing to mass incarceration.

This concept, which I call needs-based delinquency, is perpetuated through the structure and culture of the modern juvenile court, in which typical adolescent behavior of children from poor families is more likely to be criminalized and result in court referrals than misconduct by children from families of means.

Needs-based delinquency is particularly troubling given research indicating that children exposed to juvenile court reoffend at higher rates and are stigmatized in the process, while the vast majority of children whose cases are diverted or closed will never reoffend.

Yet we continue to use the juvenile court system as the primary safety net for poor children and their families, rather than ensure that children on the margins receive services without being charged with delinquency.

Adjudicating children delinquent by reason of poverty is a counterproductive approach. All of our children deserve better.

This essay was originally published in the News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina).
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Juvenile Law Center Seeks Staff Attorney

jlcOne of the best juvenile justice advocacy organizations in the U.S., the Juvenile Law Center, seeks a dedicated, creative, and experienced lawyer to join their legal staff. The attorney should have a minimum of five years of experience in juvenile justice, child welfare, criminal justice, civil rights, or a closely related field.

Juvenile Law Center is a national public interest law firm located in Philadelphia. Juvenile Law Center plays a leadership role in shaping and using the law on behalf of children in the child welfare and justice systems to promote fairness, prevent harm, secure access to appropriate services, and ensure a smooth transition from adolescence to adulthood. Our strategies include litigation, appellate advocacy, submission of amicus briefs, policy reform, public education, training, and strategic communications. We strive to ensure that laws, policies, and practices affecting youth are rooted in research, consistent with children’s unique developmental characteristics, applied fairly, and reflective of international human rights values.

People of color, members of the LGBTQ community, individuals with disabilities, and those with personal experience in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems are strongly encouraged to apply.

Visit the JLC website to learn more about the position and Juvenile Law Center’s work.

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Recommended Juvenile Justice Reading around the Web

readersNearly on a daily basis, there are excellent long form articles and other stories on juvenile justice-related topics on the web.  I try to keep up via several sources, including my Twitter feed (yes, if you’re not on Twitter and following youth/juvenile advocates, you should be), a daily email newsletter from Andrew Cohen of the Marshall Project, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange site, and my own meanderings.  Here are some samples of worthwhile reads/listens from the past week or so:

  • Sarah Stillman writes in The New Yorker about the profound damage done by the sex offender registry on youth (including those under 12 years old);
  • Eli Hager of the Marshall Project explores why there are still 80 youth prisons in the U.S. housing more than 36K young people;
  • Nikole Hannah-Jones reports on This American Life on a school district that accidentally stumbled on an integration program — it just so happens to be on the border of Ferguson, Missouri, and the district includes the high school that Michael Brown attended.

What have I missed?  Please share in the comments.

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Why are Armed Police Officers Still in Our Schools?

SPRINGFIELD, VA - JANUARY 18: Officer Joe Plazio, of the Fairfax County Police Department, patrols the hallways where he is stationed at West Springfield High School on Friday, January 18, 2012, in Springfield, VA. Fairfax County has taken a variety of approaches to making schools safe. Each of the high schools and middle schools have a Fairfax County school resource officer, who is an armed sworn officer with the Fairfax County Police. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Recently I sat in the main office of a racially-diverse middle school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, waiting to speak with a guidance counselor.  I arrived early in the morning, and the school resource office (SRO) assigned to the school from the local police department was one of the few people already there.  He amiably interacted with staff, teachers, and students, and he gave me a big smile when he walked past.  By all accounts, he couldn’t be a nicer guy.  Yet, he is a white man in a uniform, armed with a gun, in a school populated by eleven, twelve and thirteen-year-olds.  He can make arrests, and he can refer students for criminal prosecution in juvenile delinquency court.  In fact, there are armed police officers who work as SROs in all the public middle and high schools in the district in which I live.

Not long ago, I read about the assault of a 16-year-old African-American student named Shakara by SRO Ben Fields, a white man, at Spring Valley High School in Richland County, South Carolina.   I read that Shakara was allegedly being “disruptive” by failing to put away her cell phone during math class and then refusing to leave the classroom because she felt the punishment was unfair.  I read that SRO Fields is known as “Officer Slam” because of his brutal treatment of Spring Valley High students.  I read that Shakara was charged criminally with the misdemeanor charge of “disturbing schools,” which carries a maximum of ninety days in jail and a $1000 fine.  And I read that an 18-year-old classmate, Niya Kenny, was charged as an adult with the same offense for speaking up in support of Shakara during the assault.

There are at least seven other states with “disturbing schools” laws on the books.  In North Carolina, for instance, the analogous criminal offense to the one facing Shakara and Niya Kenny is disorderly conduct by disrupting students (NCGS 14-288.4(a)(6)).  Yet, the statutory language in North Carolina differs from that of its southern neighbor.  Under the NC statute, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person intentionally causes a public disturbance by disrupting, disturbing, or interfering with the teaching of students at an educational institution or by engaging in conduct that disturbs the peace, order, or discipline at an educational institution or on the adjacent grounds.

North Carolina cases in which the evidence was found to be insufficient to support an adjudication of juvenile delinquency for the offense include In re S.M., 190 NC App. 579 (2008), in which a female high school student laughed and ran away with a friend after an administrator asked her to stop in the school hallway; she was then chased by an SRO for 10-15 seconds before he arrested her. The NC Appeals Court found that this was an instance of “ordinary misbehavior or rule-breaking,” which did not rise to the level of criminal activity.  In challenging these offenses in North Carolina courts, the defense typically focuses on the element that requires proof of intentional behavior that caused an actual public disturbance, which distinguishes ordinary misbehavior like that of Shakara’s from true instances of disturbing the peace within a school.

In contrast, the South Carolina “disturbing schools” statute is very broad, as it not only criminalizes the willful or unnecessary interference or disturbance of students or teachers but also criminalizes mere loitering on school premises and/or “act[ing] in an obnoxious manner thereon.”  Candidly, I can think of dozens of examples of typical adolescent behavior on school grounds that could be deemed “obnoxious” and conceivably fall within the language of this statute.  Yet, in 2006 when the statute was challenged as overbroad and vague in violation of the First Amendment, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmedthe lower court’s decision that it was not unconstitutionally overbroad.  The decision, however, was quite fact-intensive, involving a boy who had been yelling and cursing in a classroom for over two hours and then took a swing at his teacher as he was escorted down the hall, so there is likely room to bring another appeal based on different facts.

As for the cell phone video of the incident at Spring Valley High, I’ve seen similar videos in the course of representing hundreds of children charged with criminal offenses resulting from school-based “incidents” during my years teaching in the Youth Justice Clinic at UNC Law School.  Even so, I wasn’t prepared for this one.  The violent and vicious way in which SRO Fields slammed Shakara, still sitting in her desk, onto the classroom floor and then pulled her across the room before restraining her on the ground was horrifying. I’d be outraged to see an animal treated that way, let alone a teenager.

Yet, the SRO’s attack on Shakara is a quintessential example of the school-to-prison pipeline in action, as it illustrates perfectly what the statistics already tell us – that black students are suspended and expelled from schools three times more often than their white peers, and that for black girls, the rate is twice that amount.  In fact, in South Carolina black students comprise 60% of those who are suspended from school but only 36% of the state’s student population.  A federal civil rights investigation into the incident has been initiated by the Columbia FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina.

After more than a decade of juvenile justice advocacy, I’ve concluded that police officers have no legitimate role in our schools.  The reality is that SROs are not found in most private, charter, or parochial schools, yet these educational settings manage to maintain safe learning environments for their students.  SROs are not typically trained in adolescent development, in diffusing tense situations, in building rapport with students, in advising students, or in mediation, and if these are in fact the skills and qualities that are needed in a particular school setting, qualified school counselors should be hired rather than uniformed and armed police officers.  Of course, if an urgent situation requires law enforcement, school administrators—like all citizens—can dial 911 or request assistance from the local police department.

Unfortunately, the school-to-prison pipeline is not unique to South Carolina or to North Carolina or to only a handful of states.  There are more than 17,000 police officers assigned to schools across the United States.  Data confirms that the presence of uniformed and armed law enforcement in schools has a criminogenic effect.  In other words, placing armed police in schools actually increases the physical dangers to youth.  Therefore, as long as SROs are in school buildings and classrooms, students—particularly youth of color—are as vulnerable as Shakara, not only to prosecution for typical adolescent misbehavior but to physical assault.

*A version of this essay first appeared at the Human Rights at Home blog.*

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Youth Justice Leadership Institute: Now Accepting Applications

Youth Justice NetworkKnow an advocate or organizer who wants to set the youth justice world on fire?

 

The National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN)  is now accepting applications to the 2016-17 Youth Justice Leadership Institute.

 

The Institute is a robust, year-long fellowship program run by the National Juvenile Justice Network that focuses on elevating and supporting advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by youth justice system practices and policies. We strongly encourage people of color to apply.

 

Each year, 10 fellows from across the country are selected to develop their leadership and advocacy skills in the context of a robust curriculum around youth justice reform. The fellowship is completed concurrently with fellows’ current employment, so fellows do not have to leave their jobs to participate in the Institute. The fellowship includes two fully financed retreats, mentoring and frequent distance learning opportunities.

 

Interested in learning more about the Institute, or know someone who might be? NJJN will be hosting two informational webinars on March 30, 2016 and April 4, 2016, led by the Institute’s coordinator, Diana Onley-Campbell. (You only need to register for one.) To learn more, follow the link below, or e-mail info@njjn.org.

 

» Learn more about the Youth Justice Leadership Institute.

 

 

 

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When a Clock is Only a Clock: Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline

_85589317_4163c0e1-3c48-44ab-af0f-c53360632e81Fourteen-year-old Ahmed Mohamed captured the attention of the public last Fall when he was arrested during his first weeks at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, for bringing a homemade clock to school to show his engineering teacher.  This simple act qualified as a “hoax or perceived threat” under the school district’s codes of conduct, and even after it was established that the clock was merely a clock (despite the wires and exposed circuits), police removed Ahmed from the classroom, placed him in handcuffs, and suspended him for three days.

Ahmed is tall and thin with brown skin and glasses.  His family is Muslim and they immigrated from Somali.  Ahmed frequently brought his homemade inventions to Sam Houston Middle School where he was a member of the robotics club.  Apparently, the clock incident was not his first brush with the school disciplinary regime.  In sixth grade, Ahmed reportedly had been suspended for blowing bubbles in the bathroom with another student; on another occasion, he unsuccessfully invoked the First Amendment when faced with detention for speaking out in class; and in a third incident, after being suspended for a hallway fight, a suspension was overturned after he told the principal that he had acted in self-defense when a larger boy had choked him.

In other words, Ahmed appears not only to be a natural advocate but a young man who is comfortable with and adept at speaking up for himself – despite the draconian disciplinary policies found in many public schools in the U.S.

It is not a coincidence that administrators at the Texas secondary schools that Ahmed attended turned reflexively to punitive measures when confronted by typical adolescent misbehavior.  A study by Texas A&M University found that thirty percent of Texas students in grades seven through twelve have received out-of-school suspensions, while fifteen percent were either permanently expelled or suspended more than ten times.

In fact, schools in the Irving Independent School District share all three of the principal risk factors for the school-to-prison pipeline: they underperform on high stakes testing, providing a built-in incentive to push out low-performing students; they are underfunded, leading to overcrowded classrooms and little or no support staff for struggling students and their families, such as counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses; and they adhere to zero tolerance policies in which minor acts of “insubordination” and “defiance” result in long-term suspension and prosecution in juvenile court.  Further, whether the result of explicit or implicit racial and ethnic bias, schools most likely to serve as feeders into the pipeline are those with fifty percent or more students of color and/or high percentages of ESL students, like those attended by Ahmed.

Several months ago, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced plans to reduce incarceration for nonviolent offenses and to reform school discipline policies.  He acknowledged that in the past three decades, U.S. spending on state and local corrections has increased almost twice as fast as spending on elementary and secondary education.  He acknowledged that U.S. schools suspend approximately 3.5 million students each year and refer one quarter of a million to the police.  And he acknowledged that these statistics are even more extreme for children of color and students with disabilities.

Although Secretary Duncan’s proposals to expand opportunities for quality preschool, increase teacher salaries, and provide Pell “second chance” grants to those who are incarcerated are admirable and worthy of effort, they will do little to bring about fundamental change to the punitive climate that predominates in our public schools.

The reality is that the social safety net in the U.S. is broken and that the court system – particularly the juvenile court system – now serves as the only viable source of government-funded welfare for children and families living on the economic margins.  When a low-income family with a troubled child needs assistance, they can no longer find it in the community, whether at school or at a neighborhood health clinic; instead, they are referred to law enforcement in the form of school resource officers or juvenile court probation officers.   It is only via these punitive systems that struggling children and their families have any meaningful chance to get the help they so desperately need.

The short-term solutions must extend beyond increasing teacher pay and acknowledging implicit bias and racism.  Armed security personnel are present in three out of four U.S. high schools and in the vast majority of schools that have over one thousand students; the federal government must provide incentives to dramatically decrease their presence.  There should be incentives for schools to end zero tolerance policies and to prohibit school resource officers from overseeing routine disciplinary issues.  Further, all school employees should receive training in basic adolescent development as well as mediation, conflict resolution, and restorative justice practices, which have been shown to address disciplinary problems more effectively than detention, suspension, or court referral.

Ahmed’s future looks bright.  His family has withdrawn him from the Irving Independent School District, and he has invitations to visit President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg.  Meanwhile, however, the millions of other students across the U.S. whose typical adolescent behavior is regularly criminalized have few, if any, options.  We must wait no longer to implement policies that meet their needs without pushing them out of schools and into prisons.

*A previous version of this essay was published by the Human Rights at Home blog.*
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Book Review: Letters to a Lifer — the Boy “Never to be Released”

At Home Owl Full Layout WebBy David Pasley, UNC Law 2017

Letters to a Lifer: the Boy “Never to be Released” by Cindy Sanford, with a foreword by Jeanne Bishop, is a powerful and touching narrative that illustrates the folly of life sentences for juvenile offenders. The memoir chronicles the relationship between the author—a registered nurse, wife, and mother of three boys—and an inmate named Ken who was fifteen when his role in a double homicide near Sanford’s home in Pennsylvania led to a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Sanford does an excellent job of tracking the emotional response she has to Ken as she learns of his history of childhood neglect and abuse and his attempts, through his artwork and care for birds in the prison, to demonstrate to the world the ways he has changed, and she does so in a way that had a huge impact on my own perspective. It is easy to assume that someone who has been convicted of a heinous crime should be locked away for life and to not think too deeply about the life and the humanity that is forever changed by the verdict.

As I reader, I shared Sanford’s initial suspicion of Ken’s motives and kind letters to and interactions with her, but, much in the same way that she experienced, over the course of the memoir I abandoned all suspicion of Ken and began to marvel at the strength of his character. While Sanford’s relationship with Ken (and his with her) is deeply touching, the book is also deeply sad. As I grew further enamored with Ken, it was easy to forget that he is serving a life sentence. Many times throughout the book, I wanted so badly for it to end with Ken’s release and his chance for redemption in society – but Pennsylvania does not allow for that.

In the end, Letters to a Lifer really hammers home that life sentences for juvenile offenders should be reconsidered by courts retroactively.

It would be impossible to finish this book and not believe—as Sanford so powerfully expresses at the book’s conclusion—that Ken deserves a chance to be free:

It is our fervent hope that sharing our story will spark a national conversation about the tragedy and consequences of sentencing children to die in prison. However that issue is decided, we leave our testimony that Ken is proof young people can be rehabilitated. We are convinced that imposing such harsh sentences on minors, particularly those who were victims of violence and abuse themselves, demeans us as a nation and people.

il_570xN_674861622_jpa7Cindy Sanford’s memoir is available via Amazon and Goodreads.  More information about the book and about the movement to end sentences of life in prison without parole for youth may be found here.

Ken’s gorgeous acrylic wildlife art and landscapes hand-painted on real leaves (see photos above) may be viewed at the Letters to a Lifer blog and purchased on Etsy.   

*Photos of Ken Sanford’s “New Life” and “Afternoon Swim” appear courtesy of the Sanford family.* 

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Posted in Books, Guest Blogger, Juveniles, Miller v. Alabama, Sentencing, Uncategorized, Victimized Children, Visual Arts | Comments Off on Book Review: Letters to a Lifer — the Boy “Never to be Released”