Criminal justice professionals want to curtail school-to-prison pipeline

02/03/12 Liz McKibbon
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Some civil liberties advocates and legal experts are concerned about a national trend of criminalizing children because of infractions that occur while they’re in school. Thursday night at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, a panel of criminal justice experts shared ideas about how to prevent childhood arrests through education and intervention.

Florida youth charged with serious crimes are often tried in adult court. One panel member, Judge Patrice Moore says parents don’t recognize how severely a child can be sentenced.

”I have had the… had to tell the parents that life means just that, life means L-I-F-E. It means that when you see your child again outside of the doors of prison… it will be in a pine box.”

Stetson Law professor Judy Scully helps run the Juvenile Justice Initiative. It’s made up of about 40 law students interested in ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We’re a brand new organization, our students have just started meeting in the last three months, they have been working on a curriculum to reach middle school kids to teach them about the criminal legal system, and also to teach them about their rights and to teach them alternative ways of handling disputes so that they don’t get in to trouble.”

According to an American Civil Liberties Union study, Florida first enacted a “zero tolerance” policy in 1997. By 2002 it had been revised three times to make it harsher. Students are disciplined with immediate out-of-school suspension and other severe punishment for aggravated battery, false fire alarms, motor vehicle theft, possessing alcohol and many more. Judge Irene Sullivan says this eventually leads many students to the juvenile criminal system.

”There are so many policy reasons and reasons why we are, the United States, is the number one jailor in the world, not just adults, but kids, too. We arrest and lock up more kids than any country in the world.”

Trenia Cox, planning manager for the Juvenile Welfare Board in Pinellas County says it is a fundamentally flawed procedure.

”It was for creating safer schools. It was not intended to rob children, who are still developing, of a future.”

Each school district in Florida has its own set of standards for which infractions are referred to law enforcement. According to a study by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice in fiscal year 2011, a third of delinquency referrals were for felony offenses. Many of the members on the panel, including Cox, have seen the effects on young students, first hand.

”Because let’s just say you’re 13, and you make the wrong choice. And what’s happening in the community kind of moves on to the school system. And now you have an assault charge. You have a felony. And let’s just say when your 16 and 17 you get your act together and understand you have a career path to pursue. But somehow or another now you don’t qualify for scholarships… you don’t qualify for public assistance. You can’t live in certain housing areas. Because of the felony that you have… when you were 13.”

Lily McCarty, a lawyer in the Public Defender’s Office, discussed the importance of educating parents as well as students.

”Most kids and their parents don’t have a conversation about the criminal justice system until they’re in it.”

The group suggests mentoring as an option for community members who want to get involved.

"Still Haven't Shut Off the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Evaluating the Impact of Florida's New Zero-Tolerence Law." - Issued by The ACLU of Florida, Advancement Project and Florida State Conference of the NAACP

Delinquency in Florida Schools, A Seven Year Study - Florida Department of Juvenile Justice

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