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August 11, 2019

3 programs breaking down the school-to-prison pipeline

What can the courts and counsel can do to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, in which a disproportionately large number of U.S. young people of color are funneled out of public schools and into the criminal justice system?

Representatives of law enforcement, the judiciary, the defense bar and prosecution came together to share pipeline-busting successes during a panel discussion on “How Courts and Counsel Can Stem the School to Prison Pipeline: The ABA Standards in Action,” on Aug. 9 at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

Their solution to this disturbing national trend? Youth diversion programs, which have lowered both the number of juvenile crimes and referrals to juvenile court, according to panelists.

These diversion programs are examples of how ABA standards adopted in 2017 can be used as a tool to create and reinforce best practices, said the moderator for the ABA Criminal Justice Section-sponsored program, Robert Schwartz, professor at Temple University Beasley School of Law and executive director emeritus of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

Three panelists, each representing youth programs considered national models, shared how they’ve been able to deter schools from referring students to law enforcement for routine matters involving bad behavior and other minor offenses.

Philadelphia’s response

Kevin Bethel retired in 2016 as deputy police commissioner for Philadelphia, where he oversaw school police. He said over time he became concerned about the trauma that arrests cause young people.

Bethel said that one day while reviewing data on the high number of school arrests, he told himself that he “couldn’t do it anymore.” From that point, with the support of Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, he said that Philadelphia would change “forever” how its police officers deal with at-risk school children.

Having visited the homes of the troubled youth he crossed paths with, Bethel knew something other than arrests was needed. He believed the children needed to be diverted to social service programs.

Before Bethel acted, schools in Philadelphia had zero tolerance policies and installed metal detectors at entrances, which did little to reduce the excessive number of arrests. Bethel helped to institute unarmed school officers in 2014, who were trained to do everything sworn police officers would do in similar situations involving troubled youth. And, if needed, the officers could call for backup.

These new measures required collaboration with the School District of Philadelphia, Department of Human Services and other youth agencies in the city to develop what is now known as the Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program.

Bethel said the four-year-old program successfully diverts first-time offenders on school property into community support services, keeping these youth in school and out of court. A system that used to lock up 1,580 children is down to 250 arrests this past year, according to Bethel.

He said they’ve “reengaged” law enforcement to think differently about offenses. “We can do policing, but we can do this type of [diversion] work, too, to give kids another chance,” he added.

San Francisco’s response

Katherine Miller, the chief of programs and initiatives for the office of retiring San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, said the city has a “circle of care” -- programs that find ways to “wrap their arms around children.”

Police bring arrested youth to the city’s Community Assessment and Resource Center instead of Juvenile Hall, where they  are connected to a case manager as well as a mentor, who personally guides them through probation and into a youth intervention program.

Miller said another diversion program, called Make It Right, Restorative Community Conferencing, is a volunteer-based program that features a face-to-face session among the victim, the youth and supporters. The outcome is a plan to address the harm caused and case management support. “We’ve seen really amazing differences for recidivism for the kids who go through Make it Right and the kids who go through the traditional process,” Miller said.

Although San Francisco is just 5.5% African-American, she said more than half of the children referred through the two programs are African-American. “The disparity is tremendous here,” she said.

A newly developed pilot program, San Francisco Shared Youth Database, will launch this fall and link youth data from various agencies to reduce duplication, aid research, support case plans and identify prevention and intervention opportunities. Miller said the program will help agencies “figure out how to do a better job for those families.”

Georgia’s response

Chief Presiding Judge Steven C. Teske of the Juvenile and Family Court, Clayton Judicial Circuit, in Jonesboro, Ga., believes the courts have a role to play in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. He said that since his county started reforms nearly 15 years ago, they have seen an 82% decline in juvenile arrests.

“That’s how I’m able to come to San Francisco,” the judge joked.

Though Teske believes youth should be held accountable, he also wants defense attorneys to more carefully explore the question, “Is this child truly delinquent?” The judge said more thought should be given to adolescent brain research, which would help the court decide if the actions are “really criminal.”

Teske brought together stakeholders in his community, including police, educators, social services, parents, students, mental health counselors, the church and civic organizations, to design an alternative program for youth being charged with low-level offenses. The combined efforts have resulted in this team of providers responding to status offense referrals from the schools and agencies before a petition is filed in juvenile court. The outcome has been fewer referrals to juvenile court and an improved graduation rate.

Teske said diversion programs are “contagious.” Prosecutors are wasting their time on misdemeanors when they have more complex cases that could compromise public safety, he said. “It’s about being smart.”