Home > Uncategorized > Choose Consistent Care Over Zero Tolerance to Close the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Choose Consistent Care Over Zero Tolerance to Close the School-to-Prison Pipeline

The NYTimes headline to an article by Timothy Williams reads “Police Join Call to  Cut Prison Rosters”. The article reported on a forthcoming meeting between representatives from a group of 130 police chiefs and President Obama over the need to reduce the number of people in prison. One of the factors driving this is the spiraling cost of keeping people in prisons. But the key paragraph in the article is this one:

“The law enforcement leaders now say reducing incarceration will improve public safety because people who need treatment for drug and alcohol problems or mental health issues will be more likely to improve and reintegrate into society IF THEY RECEIVE CONSISTENT CARE, something relatively few jails or prisons offer.”

I serve on the advisory board of an organization that helps recently released prisoners find their way and we struggle to provide the kind of “consistent care” needed for those residents in our program with mental health and addiction problems. We find that their mental health and addiction problems often pre-date their arrests and convictions and we also find there are few resources available to provide the “consistent care” envisioned by the police chiefs. Moreover, many taxpayers still view addiction as a moral failing as opposed to a disease and view claims of mental illness as a cause of misconduct as a copout…. and with that perspective zero tolerance policies on crime and mass incarceration makes sense.

But the problems that landed people n prison did not begin in adulthood. Based on my experience as a public school administrator, I know the problems emerged in their youth and, for the most part, were untreated. Here’s why: when “zero tolerance” policies swept the law enforcement field they also swept through schools. When a child with mental health or addiction problems was expelled from school for misconduct related to their condition, they lacked “consistent care” outside of school and ended up in the kinds of trouble that ultimately landed them in jail. This “school-to-prison” pipeline predated the one now getting publicity as a result of for-profit prisons… and we need to close that pipeline today if we want to avoid MORE unjust incarcerations in the future by providing  “consistent care” for children instead of “zero tolerance”. That means more mental health services for students and parents, more counseling for students and parents, more tolerance on the part of teachers and administrators, and an investment in the schools serving children raised in poverty who constitute the largest number of individuals who are incarcerated.

We are reaping what we sowed when we decided “zero tolerance” was a solution for schools. If we want to change the incarceration rates in the future, we need to provide “consistent care” for children instead of “zero tolerance”.

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