Mass Incarceration Creates Costly Disaster Across America


Herman Garner doesn’t dispute the drug charge that slammed him in prison for nine years.

Garner does dispute the damning circumstance that doing the time for his crime still leaves him penalized despite his having ended his sentence in the penal system.

Garner carries the “former felon” stain.

That status slams employment doors shut in his face despite his having a MBA Degree and two years of law school.

“I’ve applied for jobs at thousands of places in person and on the internet, but I’m unable to get a job,” said Garner, a Cleveland, Ohio resident who recently published a book about his prison/life experiences titled Wavering Between Extremes.

Recently Garner joined hundreds of people attending a day-long conference at Princeton University entitled “Imprisonment Of A Race,” that featured presentations by scholars and experts on the devastating, multi-faceted impact of mass incarceration across America.
For most felons, the punishment extends well beyond the completion of the sentenceFor most felons, the punishment extends well beyond the completion of the sentence

The U.S. imprisons more people per capita than any country on earth, accounting for 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, despite having just five percent of the world’s population.

America currently holds over two million in prisons with double that number under supervision of parole and probation, according to federal government figures.

Mass incarceration consumes over $50-billion annually across America – money far better spent on creating jobs and improving education.

Under federal law persons with drug convictions like Garner are permanently barred from receiving financial aid for education, food stamps, welfare and publicly funded housing.

But only drug convictions trigger these exclusions under federal law. Violent bank robbers, white-collar criminals like Wall Street scam artists who steal billions, and even murderers who’ve done their time do not face the post-release deprivations slapped on those with drug convictions on their records, including those imprisoned for simple possession, and not major drug sales.

“Academics see this topic of mass incarceration as numbers, but for millions it is their daily lives,” said Princeton conference panelist Dr. Khalilah Brown-Dean of Yale University.

Exclusions mandated by federal laws compound the legal deprivations of rights found in the laws of most states, such as barring ex-felons from jobs and even stripping ex-felons of their right to vote.

“Mass incarceration raises questions of protecting and preserving democracy,” Dr. Brown-Dean said, referencing the estimated five-million-plus Americans barred from voting by such felony disenfranchisement laws.

Many of those felony disenfranchisement laws date from measures enacted in the late 1800s which were devised specifically to bar blacks from voting, as a way to preserve America’s apartheid.

During the 2000 presidential election Republican officials in Florida manipulated that state’s anti-felon voting law fraudulently to bar tens of thousands of blacks from voting. For example, many people with common names like John Smith who shared their name with a felon were barred from voting, despite having no criminal record.

Republican George W. Bush won by Florida by a razor thin 537 vote margin…a margin secured by that felon disenfranchisement scheme. That victory in the state where George W.’s brother Jeb served as governor sent him to the White House.

Policies creating barriers to things like education and employment make it “increasingly difficult” for persons recently released from prison to “remain crime-free” according to a report released earlier this year by the Smart on Crime Coalition.

More than 60 percent of the two-million-plus people in American prisons are racial and ethnic minorities.

“The U.S. imprisons more than South Africa did under apartheid. A nation that promotes democracy has a racial caste in its prisons. We must break that caste system,” said the special guest speaker at the “Imprisonment” conference, Pennsylvania Death Row Journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who telephoned from prison.

Racism is written all over the economically/socially debilitating practices embedded in mass incarceration.

An often cited University of Wisconsin study found that 17 percent of white ex-con job seekers received interviews, compared to only five percent of black ex-con job seekers – a race-based disparity that is additionally devastating for people of color like Garner.

Ohio State University Law Professor Michelle Alexander, the featured speaker at that Princeton conference streamed live on the internet, said a major reason why imprisonment rates soared during the past four decades despite decreases in crime rates is anti-crime policies craftily manipulated by conservative Republican officials for political purposes.

Harsh anti-crimes policies of the 1970s and 1980s were largely a “punitive backlash” to advances of the Civil Rights Movement, said Alexander, author of the hugely popular 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Pennsylvania’s prison population, for example, soared from 8,243 in 1980 to 51,487 in 2010, while the California prison population leapt during the same period from 23,264 to over 170,000.

Incarceration costs are especially obscene when compared to college costs.

A report released in January 2011 by Pennsylvania’s auditor general noted the Keystone State now spends $32,059 annually to imprison one person…a cost that exceeds the annual $20,074 tuition for the MBA degree program at Penn State University.

A report released in January 2010 by a UCLA professor noted that the Golden State spends over $48,000 annually to imprison one person, more than four times the tuition cost of UCLA for a California resident. Back in 1980, California spent more of its state budget on higher education than on prisons, but that had reversed by 2010, with more of that state’s budget going for prisons than for higher education.

America’s corrosive War on Drugs – a “war” that basically ignores drug kingpins – has devastated black families, author/professor Alexander said.

“A black child today is less likely to be raised in a two-parent household than during slavery,” she said.

“In major urban areas almost one-half of black men have criminal records. Thus they face a lifetime of legalized discrimination,” encompassing exclusions from employment and access to financial assistance required to secure a viable quality of life.

Africa-Americans are 13 percent of America’s population and 14 percent of the nation’s drug users but are 37 percent of persons arrested for drugs and 56 percent of the inmates in state prisons for drug offenses, noted the 2009 congressional testimony of Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project and a conference panelist.

Both ex-felon Herman Garner and Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of Princeton’s Center for African American Studies, which hosted the conference, expressed similar views on the impacts of mass incarceration.

Dr. Glaude said mass incarceration is a “moral crisis with political and social consequences for America’s future,” during his remarks opening the conference.

Garner, in an interview, described the US prison system as the “biggest problem” in the American black community.

While politicians pushing punitive policies help drive mass incarceration its budget- busting persistence implicates the blind-eye of society, said one conference panelist, history professor Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the new director of the fabled Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.

“Middle-class whites and blacks in the U.S. are a new kind of ‘Silent Majority’ regarding mass incarceration,” Dr. Muhammad charged. “This ‘Silent Majority’ supports unjust policies of increased law enforcement and incarceration as the only way to address crime,” ignoring proven alternative approaches like “jobs, education and ending societal inequities.”

Famed Princeton Professor Dr. Cornell West criticized both the black middle class and black leadership for inaction on mass incarceration.

“The new black middle class and black leadership are not attuned to the suffering in poor black communities,” West said during the conference’s Keynote Conversation between him and Professor Alexander.

“We need more middle-class people with genuine respect for the poor. This is more than serving as role model mentors,” he said.

Author Alexander said ending the “mind-boggling scale” of mass incarceration requires “a major social movement.”

One attendee at the Princeton conference, Daryl Brooks, an activist in Trenton, NJ who operates the respected “Today’s News N.J.” blog, backs Alexander’s suggestion.

“To fix this problem we need mass boycotts. America only understands money and violence. We need to shutdown businesses like during the 60s,” said Brooks, who spent three-years in prison for a conviction he says was false, aimed at crushing his activism.

“Blacks leaders allowed this incarceration to happen by doing too little to challenge this repression,” Brooks said.

The Obama Administration is doing too little to address mass incarceration and its impacts, many of the Princeton panelists and conference attendees agreed.

These critics blast the Obama Administration for what they called its tepid approaches to the torturous scourge of 240 sexual assaults daily in state and federal prisons, charging it with foot-dragging on the Prison Rape Elimination Act which was approved by Congress during the administration of George W. Bush.

While Obama fulfilled a campaign pledge to address the sentencing disparity penalizing powder cocaine more harshly than crack cocaine (a drug derived from powder cocaine), Obama’s proclivity for bipartisan consensus has resulted in legislation that lowered but did not eliminate the disparity.

A 1995 US Sentencing Commission report called for eliminating the scientifically bogus disparity a recommendation rejected by Democratic President Bill Clinton and the Republican controlled Congress – the first ever rejection of a Commission recommendation.

That powder-crack legislation did not apply retroactively, thus failing to mitigate stiff crack cocaine sentences (often ten years for simple possession) that leaves blacks and Hispanics languishing in federal prisons. (Federal authorities rarely prosecute whites for crack cocaine violations despite federal statistics documenting that whites are the nation’s largest users of crack cocaine.)

“Obama and [US Attorney General Eric] Holder have no courage when it comes to the prison-industrial complex,” Dr. Cornell West said.

Copyright © 2011 This Can't Be Happening.

ACLU Calls for Gov'tt Spending on Schools, Not Prisons

April 7, 2011
1:51 PM


Mandy Simon, (202) 675-2312;

ACLU Joins Broad Coalition to Urge Government Spending on Schools, Not Prisons

WASHINGTON - April 7 - The American Civil Liberties Union joined a broad coalition of groups today to highlight the enormous social and fiscal cost of America’s addiction to incarceration and efforts to shift the government’s focus and resources from locking people up to education. The ACLU joined NAACP and Americans for Tax Reform to discuss a new report, “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate.” The release of the report, published by the NAACP, gave today’s groups common ground to discuss excessive and needless government spending on mass incarceration and offer viable and smart solutions to reform the criminal justice system.

The ACLU has made reform of the nation’s criminal justice system a top organizational priority and is capitalizing on its presence in all 50 states to actively work with bipartisan coalitions to reduce the number of people behind bars and create a criminal justice system that is fair, better protects our public safety and cuts excessive corrections spending.

The following can be attributed to Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office:

“The ACLU is in a unique position to fight for criminal justice reform given our state affiliates. Our 53 affiliates allow us to have a voice and presence on the ground in state legislatures and courtrooms across the country, working with lawmakers of every ideology to advance our work…

“Tough on crime should not mean criminalizing our nation’s youth. The juvenile justice system has countless entry points and our schools have become one of these points. Often, after entering the juvenile justice system, children then become entangled in the criminal justice system. It’s time for our communities, our lawmakers and law enforcement to come up with real, workable solutions to keeping our kids out of jail and in classrooms where they belong. On this issue, we cannot and will not fail.

“The ACLU, for its part, will continue to make it a priority to work with these groups on decreasing our prison population and promoting a smart and fair criminal justice system that truly lives up to its name.”

The following can be attributed to Vanita Gupta, Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU:

“This is an historic opportunity for the ACLU to join forces with a diverse coalition to end our nation’s senseless addiction to incarceration and advance smarter criminal justice policies that reduce both corrections spending and our bloated prison populations. Spending enormous amounts of money to lock people up unnecessarily is unfair, fiscally irresponsible and does not protect our public safety.”


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

States’ Shameful Trade-Off: Putting Prisons over Public Schools

by Michelle Chen

The state lawmakers who are pushing hard for "austerity" aren't so much enemies of government “waste” as they are expert money launderers in the business of politics. Education is at the center of their shell game.

Across the country, conservatives are fixated on a curious formula for deficit reduction: wholesale disinvestment in schools (coupled with erosion of union rights and working conditions for teachers), plus a race to pump tax breaks for the rich and stifle health care for the poor. And in many areas, one sacred cow continues to fatten while students starve: our bloated prison system.(Image via

This week will bring more showdowns over public sector budget cuts in states like Florida and Ohio, hammering down especially hard on education. The Associated Press reports that the evaporation of federal stimulus funds is pushing schools toward a funding “cliff.” Adding insult to injury,some state governments appear to have funded certain programs by stealing stimulus funds intended for education, “thus avoiding cuts elsewhere in their budgets.”

Civil rights advocates suspect that the “elsewhere” resides in political interests hostile to children. A new report by the NAACP, “Misplaced Priorities,” describes the systematic underfunding of education alongside massive resources diverted into draconian criminal justice systems--a pattern that indirectly creates perverse incentives for incarcerating, rather than educating vulnerable youth.

A testament to structural racism and the “lock 'em up” mentality behind the War on Drugs, activists warn that another generation will be swallowed by courts and prisons that eagerly pick up where schools have failed disadvantaged youth.

Civil rights groups have called on lawmakers to shift funding priorities to promote educational equity and rehabilitation initiatives for youth. These proactive steps can help prevent violence and crime, and can generate meaningful work and advancement in communities battered by harsh law enforcement on the one hand, and unemployment and disinvestment on the other.

There's a tragic financial and political logic to the trade-off between educational and criminal institutions. The so-called “school to prison pipeline”--which pushes youth, particularly low-income youth of color, into the criminal justice system—begins in heavily police-patrolled schools, sucks “delinquents” into a racially skewed juvenile justice system, and ends up cycling young adults through courts and prisons, further uprooting them from their communities. This pipeline isn't just a rhetorical metaphor; it's a real channel for taxpayer money that tends to go ignored because the families most impacted are politically invisible.

Understanding the school-to-prison trajectory isn't rocket science. When kids grow up in impoverished neighborhoods, attend schools that can barely afford books much less high-quality teachers, even risk getting assaulted as they walk to school, society in many ways assumes and preordains their criminality before they ever break a law.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is borne out by data showing the overlap of high incarceration and poor education. In Los Angeles, according to the NAACP's analysis, “69 of the 90 (67 percent) low performing schools are in neighborhoods with the highest incarceration rates. By contrast, 59 of the city's 86 high performing schools (68 percent) are in neighborhoods with the lowest incarceration rates.”

In New York City, public schools hemorrhaged hundreds of millions of dollars while public coffers bled more than $500 million to lock up residents sentenced in 2008, who came from a handful of chronically troubled neighborhoods (and their school districts).

Overall, the NAACP finds:

During the last two decades, as the criminal justice system came to assume a larger proportion of state discretionary dollars, state spending on prisons grew at six times the rate of state spending on higher education.

As this year's fiscal crises heat up, you'll hear lots of arguments about “shared sacrifice” and “tough decisions.” But those lawmakers need a lesson in how to “share” from the students whose education is sacrificed in the name of austerity. Their future is to be decided by a political elite who'll never understand just how tough these kids' lives will be.

Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen's work has appeared in AirAmerica, Women's International Perspective, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet. She is a regular contributor to In These Times' workers' rights blog, Working In These Times. She also blogs at

Right-winger + hard time = compassion?


Some of the most eloquent advocates for prison reform are conservatives who find themselves behind bars

by Justin Elliott

Last week, disgraced former congressman Duke Cunningham wrote a letter to several media outlets from the federal penitentiary where he has resided since 2006. In it, Cunningham, a conservative Republican who pleaded guilty in a public corruption case in 2005, waxed eloquent about an unlikely topic: prison reform.

"The United States has more more men & women in prison than any other nation including Russia and China," he wrote. "The largest growing number of prisoners, women -- 1-34 Americans are either on probation or in prison. The 95% conviction rate reached by threats of long sentences, intimidation, lies and prosecutorial abuse has got to be reckoned with now, not later." Cunningham also promised he would dedicate his life to prison reform.

We've seen transformations like this before. Cunningham is the latest in a string of conservative political figures to see the light on prison reform following a stint behind bars.

Right-wing media mogul Conrad Black, for example, did two years' hard time after being convicted in a 2007 fraud case. Following his release in 2010, Black has written passionately about prison reform.

While incarcerated, he learned "of the realities of street level American race relations; of the pathology of incorrigible criminals; and of the wasted opportunities for the reintegration of many of these people into society. I saw at close range the failure of the U.S. War on Drugs, with absurd sentences, (including 20 years for marijuana offences, although 42% of Americans have used marijuana and it is the greatest cash crop in California.)."

And, of course, Nixon aide Charles Colson devoted his life to criminal justice reform -- and spreading Christianity among prisoners -- after serving seven months in 1974 for obstruction of justice in a Watergate-related case. Colson's Justice Fellowship organization lobbies for better conditions in prisons and reform of sentencing and the criminal code. The head of Justice Fellowship is Pat Nolan, a former conservative law-and-order Republican in the California assembly who devoted himself to prison reform after serving 29 months for corruption in the 1990s.

To learn more about this trend -- as well as the more general role of the right in prison reform efforts -- I spoke with Douglas Berman, a professor at Ohio State's Moritz College of Law and the proprietor of the Sentencing Law Blog. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What explains the phenomenon of conservatives who have gone to prison and come out as prison reform advocates?

I think it's a combination of the discovery that prison is harsher and starker than they have anticipated, and their personal experiences going through the system -- getting sentenced to prison and experiencing the humanity that's there. It makes them appreciate that the good vs. evil dichotomy doesn't capture the nuanced reality of prison. There are some good people that get sent to prison, and some evil people who don't. It's essential to the usual conservative ideology that's tough on crime to think, "There are the good people that the politicians need to protect from the bad people. And the bad people go to jail." Going to prison and experiencing that nothing is ever that black and white plays a significant role in conservatives coming out and becoming reform advocates.

What about religion; how much of a role does it play in these conversions?

I think for a certain set of religiously oriented conservatives, in particular for evangelicals, the notion of redemption or the possibility of restoration plays a big role. Even if we do have an instinct that "some people are just evil," that doesn't undermine their belief that even evil people can be redeemed and change their ways. The religious overtones also inform the instinct that society and individuals are judged not by how they treat the best off, but by how they treat the worst off. That's another discovery for anybody who spends time with people who get caught up in the criminal justice system. Disproportionately, it's folks who suffer from poverty and less education and addictions and mental health issues. A spiritual or religious commitment to have society take care of those who are least able to take care of themselves can kick in as well.

Does political support for prison reform tend to break down along traditional left-right lines?

Historically there were certainly periods when prison reform became very much a left-right issue. But there have also been periods when Democrats concluded they couldn't afford to be portrayed as soft on crime. Bill Clinton pioneered this two decades ago at the presidential level. At that time, Democrats began talking the tough game and beating their chests. The death penalty indirectly played a role in this when, in the 1988 campaign, Dukakis was portrayed as soft on crime and that seemed to resonate. Clinton, in running in 1992, along with some other more conservative-leaning Democrats, recognized that crime was particularly problematic as a social issue for Democrats. The Clinton administration was among the toughest not just for Democrats, but in general. That runs the gamut from death penalty to mandatory minimum sentencing to other issues.

The first set of tough-on-crime reforms in the federal system goes back to the mid-'80s and the Reagan administration. But in that era Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. So really by the mid- to late-'80s -- partially because of increasing crime rates -- Democrats were growing less and less sympathetic to progressive approaches to crime and punishment. That's when, under both parties, the increase in the prison population started to take off. That accelerated and really has led to what's now known as "mass incarceration" -- a truly stunning percentage of Americans locked behind bars. Both parties came to view that getting tougher and tougher on crime produced political benefits. That's why this issue can rarely be simplified in left-right terms.

What are the major issues in the arena of prison reform right now?

There are three enduring issues that are on everyone's mind right now. First is the costs and use of imprisonment. There has often been concern about using prison for low-level offenders because of human costs. But in times of recession, the economic costs of prisons are true budget-busters, particularly for states. The NAACP just released a report emphasizing that as states have spent more dollars on prison systems, they've had less money to spend on education and other social services. Just about every state legislature across the country -- particularly those that have been distinctly tough in the past -- is struggling with how to afford to continue to incarcerate so many people. They're asking, "How can we sensibly let some folks off or try different approaches?"

That leads to another enduring issue: What is the efficacy of imprisonment relative to alternative sanctions? There's always buzz about using community treatment centers instead of prisons for drug offenders, for example. When it's addiction or related social problems that are driving people into crime, should we be attacking those social problems instead of falsely hoping those problems will go away if we lock someone up in a prison cell? There's some new research about how we can use "smart on crime" or evidence-based policies to figure out which people are at the highest risk to be violent or commit crimes in the future.

The third enduring issue is the way in which race and class and gender impact the operation of criminal justice systems. There's absolutely no doubt that minorities are disproportionately incarcerated -- and disproportionately incarcerated for long periods of time. Some people will say that's mostly a function of offending rates. But a sophisticated analysis shows that, no, it's really a byproduct of society's willingness to imprison for longer periods those offenses that are associated with minorities. There's the long-standing debate about crack sentencing versus powder cocaine sentencing, but that's just the tip of a broader iceberg.

So is this a hopeful moment for advocates of prison reform?

Yes, I think it very much is.

And is it coming primarily from left or right?

Both. The bills have come due. There were a lot of laws where legislators got the political benefit of saying, "I'm increasing sentences" -- and the costs don't come until a decade later when the sentences are increased and the prison populations are bursting. On both the left and the right, there's a recognition that the rhetoric and demagoguery about "tough on crime" can no longer be done without an extraordinary expense. That said, the politics are still tough. It's awfully hard for a legislator or president or governor to say, "It's important to change the way we deal with crack dealers or sex offenders or violent criminals." While it's as hopeful a moment as we've had in recent decades -- and that's added to by the fact that crime rates are at historically low levels -- it's awfully easy to get the very forces that led to the enactment of these severe laws revved up again. So my optimism is always tempered by the fact that the political forces that drove mass incarceration are always lurking.

Copyright ©2011 Salon Media Group, Inc.

More Black Men Now in Prison System Than Were Enslaved

by Dick Price

“More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” Michelle Alexander told a standing room only house at the Pasadena Main Library this past Wednesday, the first of many jarring points she made in a riveting presentation.

Alexander, currently a law professor at Ohio State, had been brought in to discuss her year-old bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness More Black Men Now in Prison System than Were Enslaved. Interest ran so high beforehand that the organizers had to move the event to a location that could accommodate the eager attendees. That evening, more than 200 people braved the pouring rain and inevitable traffic jams to crowd into the library’s main room, with dozens more shuffled into an overflow room, and even more latecomers turned away altogether. Alexander and her topic had struck a nerve.

Growing crime rates over the past 30 years don’t explain the skyrocketing numbers of black — and increasingly brown — men caught in America’s prison system, according to Alexander, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice  Harry Blackmun after attending Stanford Law. “In fact, crime rates have fluctuated over the years and are now at historical lows.”

“Most of that increase is due to the War on Drugs, a war waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color,” she said, even though studies have shown that whites use and sell illegal drugs at rates equal to or above blacks. In some black inner-city communities, four of five black youth can expect to be caught up in the criminal justice system during their lifetimes.

As a consequence, a great many black men are disenfranchised, said Alexander — prevented because of their felony convictions from voting and from living in public housing, discriminated in hiring, excluded from juries, and denied educational opportunities.

“What do we expect them to do?” she asked, who researched her ground-breaking book while serving as Director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California. “Well, seventy percent return to prison within two years, that’s what they do.”

Organized by the Pasadena Public Library and the Flintridge Center, with a dozen or more cosponsors, including the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and Neighborhood Church, and the LA Progressive as the sole media sponsor, the event drew a crowd of the converted, frankly — more than two-thirds from Pasadena’s well-established black community and others drawn from activists circles. Although Alexander is a polished speaker on a deeply researched topic, little she said stunned the crowd, which, after all, was the choir. So the question is what to do about this glaring injustice.

Married to a federal prosecutor, Alexander briefly touched on the differing opinion in the Alexander household. “You can imagine the arguments we have,” Alexander said in relating discussions she has with her husband. “He thinks there are changes we can make within the system,” she said, agreeing that there are good people working on the issues and that improvements can be made. “But I think there has to be a revolution of some kind.”

However change is to come, a big impediment will be the massive prison-industrial system.

“If we were to return prison populations to 1970 levels, before the War on Drugs began,” she said. “More than a million people working in the system would see their jobs disappear.”

So it’s like America’s current war addiction. We have built a massive war machine — one bigger than all the other countries in the world combined — with millions of well-paid defense industry and billions of dollars at stake. With a hammer that big, every foreign policy issue looks like a nail — another bomb to drop, another country to invade, another massive weapons development project to build.

Similarly, with such a well-entrenched prison-industrial complex in place — also with a million jobs and billions of dollars at stake — every criminal justice issue also looks like a nail — another prison sentence to pass down, another third strike to enforce, another prison to build in some job-starved small town, another chance at a better life to deny.

Alexander, who drew her early inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., devotes the last part of “The New Jim Crow” to steps people can take to combat this gross injustice. In particular, she recommended supporting the Drug Policy Alliance. At the book signing afterwards, Dr. Anthony Samad recruited Michelle Alexander to appear this fall at one his Urban Issues Forums, typically at the California African American Museum next to USC.

Dick Price is the editor of LA

Zero-Tolerance Policy Creates a School-to-Prison Pipeline

EDITOR'S NOTE: Schools across the nation are increasingly adopting punitive measures as a way to control and deter violence and other disruptive behaviors. These “zero-tolerance” policies can encompass anything from metal detectors to increased police presence on school campuses to the handing out of expulsions and suspensions. But a rising tide of voices say that zero-tolerance policies are ineffective, and in fact only succeed in making matters worse by creating a “school and prison pipeline.”

Former NAM managing editor Annette Fuentes is the author of a new book, Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes the Jail House, published by Verso. The book explores the reasons zero-tolerance policies have grown and investigates the impact those policies are having on students. She was interviewed by NAM associate editor Jacob Simas.

JS: We've witnessed a trend over the last 20 years or so, of schools embracing security and punishment as a means to control student behavior. Would it be safe to assume, then, that our schools are not as safe as they used to be?

AF: It would be very inaccurate [to say that]. Schools today are among the safest places for children to be, and that includes their homes and their neighborhoods. We know, the experts know, that the level of violence in our public schools is among the lowest level it’s been in in about 20 years. School violence peaked in the early ‘90s. Data from the National Center on School Violence… show clearly that incidents of violence in schools have been going down. And this parallels crime in general, in the wider society. So schools are in almost all cases the safest places for kids to be. That doesn't mean that there are not incidents of school violence, but they have been so blown out of proportion that most people walk around thinking that another Columbine is just around the corner.

JS: So why the hysteria around violence? Now, you mentioned Columbine, but certainly the hysteria is due to more than just one isolated incident.

AF: Columbine happened in 1999, but in fact there had been a handful -- maybe four or five – of very high-profile school shootings in the years preceding Columbine. There was one in Paducah, Kentucky; a student who shot classmates at a prayer group up in Springfield, Orgeon; a young man who shot and killed his parents and then went to school with his gun and shot at folks. There were several that were very high profile. So people already were kind of primed for school violence.

Now, remember, these shootings were very high profile; they claimed multiple victims. But compared to how many kids are killed every day in acts of violence in their own homes, in their own neighborhoods, it just doesn't even compare. But these were crimes that had shocked people, and that made it appear that schools were violent. And it fit with the narrative of violent children, violent schools that had been building since the 1980s.

You know, we've been a society afraid of crime since, really, the Reagan administration and perhaps before. But the war on drugs led to the war on kids, and the increasing prison-like conditions for juveniles in general. So we started cracking down on kids in schools and it's just led to a whole raft of policies and practices that have made schools more and more like prisons.

My book talks about everything, from the increased presence of police, the increased use of drug-sniffing dogs, of drug testing in schools -- and I'm not even talking urban schools, I'm talking about schools in suburban New Jersey or suburban Oregon -- where parents are afraid that their kids are doing drugs and are out of control. We are clamping down on kids with other high tech security and surveillance equipment at a time of scarce school resources. School districts are spending money on the surveillance hardware of the prison state.

JS: Many have criticized zero tolerance policies for creating a "school-to-prison pipeline." Does that argument have any teeth, and if so, could you paint us a picture of how such a scenario might play out?

AF: It's really a very, very ugly scenario. But we know, and the education and legal researchers who have been looking at this issue for two, maybe three decades have found, that zero tolerance policies that put kids at risk of suspension, and then lead to kids dropping out, those (in turn) put them at risk of falling into the prison pipeline.

So we know that high percentages of black and Latino kids have high rates of drop out from schools, and we know that a high percentage of the prison population is comprised of black and Latino men in particular, although young women are increasingly in that scenario. But researchers like Russell Skiba -- who was one of the first to do research on suspensions and look at the racial component of it -- they’ve shown how increasing the number of suspensions increases the risks of the most vulnerable students to being pushed out of school.

Now, the other part of this equation is that schools and teachers are under incredible pressure, especially with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) -- which was former President George W. Bush's signature education bill. What NCLB did was to put incredible pressure to achieve unrealistic levels of achievement in English and math from students who were starting at a very low level, and were expected each year to increase their English and math skills really unrealistically.

Teachers and schools were not given the resources to make these changes to increase the achievement levels, and so for a lot of teachers -- and I heard this time and again during the course of my two years of reporting -- teachers were under pressure to get the lowest-achieving students out of their classrooms. You get rid of the lower achievers, and you automatically have a class whose collective achievement level is raised. So those kids who are the most challenged, the lowest achievers, are those who need the most resources. But in resource-starved classrooms, they’re not getting it. In some cases, sadly, it’s easier to just suspend them because they’re trouble and because the teacher doesn't have the wherewithal to deal with that student one-on-one. And unfortunately, in a time of budget cuts all over the country, the fear is that this is just being worsened because suspension becomes a quick fix for kids who are the most challenging to deal with.

JS: Teachers have an incredibly tough job. I can imagine a scenario where a teacher may have 30 or 40 students in the classroom, but it just takes one or two students with behavioral issues to disrupt the whole learning environment. Isn't one student getting suspended or expelled preferable to a whole classroom not being able to learn?

Well, that would be fine if it were just one student, but the numbers are staggering. I looked at the data on suspensions -- just the absolute numbers on how many kids are suspended – and it's amazing. Let's take Texas, George Bush's home state, where he perfected some of the component pieces of NCLB. Last year, Texas had 1.6 million suspensions. Now, that could be the same students getting multiple suspensions, but in one state, to have 1.6 million disruptions of an education, that is significant. So it isn't one student being suspended; it is most likely multiple students. And even if there are a handful of troublemakers, these are kids who really require extra help and extra assistance, and not being pushed aside. Because by the 8th grade, if a child has already experienced a suspension, it is very likely that that kid will not finish high school. Studies that have been done over and over again in different parts of the county are bearing this out.

The other thing is that this school-to-prison pipeline is a two-way valve, I've discovered. A lot of the leading legal and education researchers talk about that -- about how the failing school system puts kids at risk of falling into the juvenile justice system, or the adult criminal justice system. But what I discovered was that the criminal justice system is flowing into a school. That’s why I looked at policing, the increased use of surveillance technology in schools. And I'm talking about schools in urban and even affluent school districts. I went to Columbine high school in 2008. I visited with the principal and talked about what he had done in the school to make it safer. Columbine High is in an affluent suburban enclave outside Denver, and these issues the schools faces, the security, zero tolerance, are everywhere in the country. While black and Latino students are most at risk for falling into the pipeline, all students, I think, are being treated as suspects. We've got to be a public school system that can provide for the range of students we have.

JS: You're hinting at my next question. These zero tolerance policies have been on the rise, but there are also signs that the tide may be shifting. You offer some case studies of schools that have been using alternative methods to achieve school safety. Can you talk about some of those alternatives?

AF: Well, this was the last chapter in my book and it's called Alternatives to the Lockdown Model, and of course it's a sort of a happy ending to my book because I don't want to dump all this stuff on folks and not give them some reason to be hopeful. Because also, there is a vibrant, active and growing movement around the country, among legal advocates for young people and educators. There's a campaign called Dignity in Schools, a national campaign with various member coalitions, including groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. The Advancement Project, which is in Washington, has done some groundbreaking work on zero tolerance and the school-to-prison pipeline. These folks are doing great work.

Education, clearly, is a key issue in this country, even if it has been pushed on the back burner by the budget deficit and the economic crisis. Education is part of the whole scenario of what needs to be reformed in this country. So the Dignity in Schools campaign and other education activists and children’s advocates are saying we want this new education law to include in it provisions that support positive behavioral interventions in school, which is a completely new paradigm. It is a paradigm that says we will not punish kids, we will not focus on disciple and punishment, but rather on rewarding good behaviors and supporting kids for making strides in changed behaviors and achievement. It's really a turning of the paradigm on its head and treating kids as young people who do make mistakes.

And again, I can't help but go back to my own experience as a kid. Children are not more violent than they were 30 to 40 years ago. We may have had more high-profile gun incidents, but let’s not forget that we are a society that today has more guns flowing freely than it did 30 or 40 years ago.

Kids are supposed to make mistakes. Schools are supposed to be places where they are taught the right ways to behave and the right ways to interact with other kids and adults. So if we can't use schools as a place to teach them how to behave, how to learn from their mistakes, then we have really failed them as a society.

To read more about zero tolerance from a student's perspective, click here.

Annette Fuentes is also an editor at the Bay Citizen, a non-profit news service in San Francisco.

‘Zero-Tolerance’ Policies Funnel Students into Prisons

by Annette Fuentes

It’s almost cap-and-gown time for seniors at high schools around the country, but too many teenagers have dropped out of school and are at risk of entering the criminal-justice system.

This is one of the greatest failures of our educational system. About 10 percent of all males in prison are high-school dropouts.

The zero-tolerance policy of school disciplinary codes has contributed greatly to this problem. It has created an epidemic of suspensions for behaviors that are often minor transgressions.

Not too long ago, student disruptions — talking in class, shoving in the hallways, being tardy — would receive a slap on the wrist. Now, at the discretion of teachers and principals, such behavior leads to in-school and out-of-school suspensions, which can last a few days or longer.

In California alone, there were more than 700,000 out-of-school suspensions in the last school year. And the Texas school system had more than half a million.

Each time a student is excluded from the classroom, it puts his or her education in suspension, too, and it increases the likelihood that the student will drop out.

Education researchers have found that suspensions early in a child’s academic career, even as young as elementary school, are a predictor of dropping out by the 10th grade.

Suspensions lead to the school-to-prison pipeline. The harsh discipline of zero-tolerance policies puts the most vulnerable kids, disproportionately black and Latino students, at greatest risk of dropping out of school. And from there, excluded from education and with limited prospects, they are at greater risk of falling into jail.

Zero-tolerance discipline and the suspension epidemic are like a public-health threat, so it’s no wonder that the American Psychological Association came out strongly against these harsh practices in public schools several years ago. The group called for a new approach to creating safe schools in a healthy learning environment.

A national coalition of educators, legal and civil rights advocates is doing just that. They’ve come together to form the Dignity in Schools Campaign, which is calling on Congress to replace a zero-tolerance approach to safety and discipline with something completely different: positive behavioral supports. In this model, adopted by Los Angeles schools, students’ good behaviors are rewarded and their bad behaviors are viewed as an opportunity for learning and remediation.

The harsh model of discipline that prevails in too many U.S. schools needs to be replaced with a model that is more befitting their core mission: to educate our young and teach them with compassion and understanding.

Once that happens, we’ll have many more of our high-school students reaching out for their diplomas, instead of going to jail.

U.S. Supreme Court orders Cali to release over 30,000 prisoners

by Karen O'Keffe

Today, in a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision ordering California to reduce its state prison population by more than 30,000 prisoners. It found that as a result of overcrowding, the prisoners’ “medical and mental health care … has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements … .” Even after the prison population is reduced, California’s prisons could still be over 37% above capacity.
The dissent painted a picture of a public safety disaster if the inmates were released. But, in reality, California prisons are far more dangerous to some of these inmates than those inmates have ever been to society. As the court noted, “needless suffering and death have been the well documented result” of current conditions.
Outrageously, many prisoners are there for nothing more than growing or delivering a plant that has never caused a fatal overdose — marijuana. In California, cultivation of marijuana (other than under the medical marijuana law) is a felony punishable by up to three years in state prison.
For participating in the production or sale of a substance safer than alcohol, these non-violent marijuana offenders face possible death in prison. The Supreme Court quoted a lower court ruling that prisoners were needlessly dying every five to six days as a result of the conditions. For example, “A prisoner with severe abdominal pain died after a five-week delay in referral to a specialist; a prisoner with ‘constant and extreme’ chest pain died after an eight-hour delay in evaluation by a doctor; and a prisoner died of testicular cancer after a ‘failure of MDs to work up for cancer in a young man with 17 months of testicular pain.’”
The state of California will decide who will be released. But this decision should result in the release of all non-violent marijuana offenders who are in state prison. Unlike violent and property criminals, their crimes had no victims. Then again, if decisions on who to imprison and who to let free were in keeping with reason and morality, we wouldn’t see non-violent marijuana offenders sentenced to life while convicted child sex offenders walk free on probation

Marijuana Policy Project


More Fake Criminal Justice Reform in Georgia, And A Real Answer


by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

How do you reform the “criminal justice system” without acknowledging systematic torture, endemic corruption, pervasive racial and class bias, the failure of the war on drugs, and the massive economic and social devastation it wreaks upon entire communities? The answer is you don't. You create a “Criminal Justice Reform Commission” of insiders and consultants, keep the public at bay, and focus on making the prison state cost less. For “reformers” like this, the only thing US prisons have done wrong is spend too much money...

More Fake Criminal Justice Reform in Georgia, And A Real Answer

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

Reform the prison state? Sound like a good idea? In Georgia, reform is the official state policy, with its own commission, pricey consultants and slick PR effort.

But what kind of reform of the prison state ignores racial selectivity in policing, prosecuting and sentencing? What kind of prison, or to use the state's own term, what kind of “criminal justice reform” will do nothing to stop the incarceration of juveniles with adults, and does not address the lifelong discrimination against former prisoners in employment and housing?

What does “reform” of the prison state mean, when it doesn't require the state to provide adequate health care, or meaningful educational and self-improvement opportunities to prisoners? What kind of “criminal justice reform” would leave intact the failed forty year war on drugs? What kind of “reform” continues to allow the gouging of prisoners' families on phone calls and money-transfer fees?

What's left, if you leave out all those things, is the Georgia governor's Commission on Criminal Justice Reform. At their first public meeting in June, the thirteen member commission, guided by consultants from the Pew Charitable Trust and Applied Research Associates, a well-connected research firm, stated that in their view, prisons were just another government spending program, and government spending programs have to be cut. That's it and that's all.

In other words, the only thing Georgia's, and by extension the national prison state are doing wrong is spending too much money. Arbitrary and punitive beatings and torture, like the state's response to the Georgia prisoner strike last December are no problems. The stunted economic futures of families and whole communities due to employment discrimination against former prisoners are no problem. Abysmal medical care and the absence of educational programs behind the walls, cited by prisoners as causes of the strike, are also of no concern. Racist over-policing of black and brown communities is no problem and the profiling and rounding up of immigrants are, according to the commission, not a problem either. Racial and class disparities or the unavailability of funds to pay decent defense attorneys? Not even in the conversation.

Once in the front ranks of the nation's drive to lock up and throw away the keys for as many of its residents as possible, Georgia now intends to lead the nation in the race to de-carcerate many of this same population... albeit under conditions that do not affect their class, economic, family, literacy, health or social status in the least. Georgia already leads the nation not in the number or percentage of prisoners, but the percentage of all its residents under all kinds of lock, key, court, bail, parole or probationary supervision.

The governor's commission sees its job as crunching the voluminous data they have on every commitment to the state's system over the last two decades and coming up with formulaic ways to distinguish the supposedly violent and dangerous offenders from the non-violent and less dangerous ones. The commission will recommend cheaper, out of prison programs for these. The commission's consultants will get paid, the contractors who implement the “out-of-prison” programs will get paid, and maybe the whole thing will cost less. Maybe.

But there are no guarantees. As the consultants noted at the July 13 meeting, in 2001, Georgia privatized misdemeanor probations. At that time the state had 159,000 probationers, felonies and misdemeanors together. Today the state's network of private probation contractors manage more than 450,000 misdemeanor probation cases alone. Go figger.

The governor's commission on criminal justice reform does not intend to seek public input from anybody outside the parties it has already recognized as “stakeholders”.... associations of judges, prosecutors and sheriffs, with maybe a token defense attorney thrown in, Democratic and Republican legislators, and local chambers of commerce. If the current pattern holds, it will have monthly public meetings at which only commissioners and the consultants can speak, and only in the state capitol building in Atlanta.

Evidently, in the commission's view, if you're a member of an immigrant community at risk of arbitrary profiling and imprisonment, you're not a stakeholder. If you live in a community with a forty or fifty percent rate of black male unemployment, in part because formerly imprisoned can be legally discriminated against in jobs, housing and other areas, you are not a stakeholder. If you or a member of your family is a current or former prisoner, you're certainly nobody the commission wants to hear from. If you're a juvenile in an adult prison, or a prison-like facility, you are somebody the governor's commission on criminal justice reform intends to ignore.

That ain't right.

At a meeting in Marietta a few weeks ago, a number of local residents came up with thirteen points they'd like to see the governor's commission to address. Absent consideration of those points, they suggest, the governor's, and the commission's notion of reform are empty and deceitful rhetoric.

They're calling themselves ---- heck I'm it in, so I can use the first person ---- we're calling ourselves the Campaign to End Mass Incarceration. We are demanding, for a start, that the governor's commission on criminal justice reform hold hearings throughout the state to solicit public input into its reform proposals, including in at least one adult and one juvenile prison. Georgia has plenty of these, so finding one should be no challenge.

We've got a web site at, and a petition, both online and downloadable. These are our thirteen points...

  1. Restore voting rights to all convicted persons, including those currently confined in prisons and jails. The U.S. is alone among advanced industrial nations in depriving prisoners the right to vote.

  2. End the lifelong discrimination against convicted persons in employment, housing, and civil and public benefits of all kinds by enacting simple and transparent expungement processes and by prohibiting employers and others from inquiring into the police and criminal records of applicants and job seekers.

  3. Ban the imprisonment of juveniles with adults, and over the next three years phase out all youth prisons and prison-like facilities in favor of appropriate educational, therapeutic and family-building institutions. Imprisoning youth with adults is indefensible. The prison state has proven an utter failure at educating, protecting or healing troubled youth. The 2008-09 National Survey of Youth in Custody revealed that one in eight youth in custody nationwide reported one or more incident of sexual victimization in the past 12 months, with more than 90% of these committed by staff.

  4. Institute meaningful education, self-improvement and skills programs for all those confined in prisons and jails. Thousands of Georgia prisoners are illiterate. Every year hundreds of thousands are released from the nation's prisons and jails into communities no better than when they left, with little affordable housing or health care, few jobs or educational opportunities.

  5. Remove all financial incentives that police and sheriffs' departments currently receive for increasing the numbers of low-level drug arrests and ban the use of confiscated funds by law enforcement agencies. Paying police departments per volume of drug arrests, and allowing law enforcement agencies to seize funds for their own use are invitations to corruption and selective enforcement.

  6. Acknowledge and abolish racial and class injustices inherent in the selective over-policing of poor communities of color, in the plea bargaining system, in unfettered prosecutorial discretion, mandatory minimum sentences and a host of other law enforcement policies that differentially affect communities of color and the poor. Require statements of anticipated racial and ethnic impact for future sentencing legislation and other practices proven to have disparate racial impact, and sunset all two strikes and mandatory sentencing laws.

  7. Ban price gouging on phone calls between prisoners and their families, institute transparency in accounting of inmate funds and make it easier for families of prisoners to visit their loved ones behind bars. It's not the job of prisoners or their families to financially support the prison state or profiteering businesses. Maintenance of family ties is crucial to the

  8. Provide decent health care in the nation's prisons and jails. Health care is a human right, period.

  9. Institute full transparency in the fines and punishments levied upon inmates and the grievances filed by inmates. Nobody outside prison administrators knows the number, character, or disposition of inmate filed grievances or sanctions applied to prisoners. To ensure these are being fairly handled this information must be available to some community entities outside the Department of Corrections.

  10. Decriminalize drug use, homelessness and mental illness. The forty year drug war has failed, and even though jails and prisons are wildly unsuited to treat mental illness they are where most of the nation's mentally ill are currently housed.

  11. Stop the racist profiling and roundups of immigrants and repeal legislation that encourages or requires it. Cease participation in the Secure Communities initiative, and repeal measures that promote and require profiling of suspected immigrants.

  12. Tell the Truth! Challenge, rather than reinforce, common misconceptions about crime and base policy on empirical evidence, not political convenience. Initiate mature and balanced media discourse that serves to counter myths and misunderstandings. Criminal behavior is not born of hedonism or moral weakness. It is politically defined, arising out of economic inequality and marginalization. Nobody went to jail for the mortgage meltdown or the BP oil disaster or many similar crimes committed by people and corporations who are not poor or persons of color.

  13. Georgia's Commission on Criminal Justice Reform must hold a series of public hearings around the state including at least one in an adult state prison and one in a juvenile facility soliciting public input into measures that produce true reform and begin to undo the direct and collateral damage the prison state has caused our families and communities.


Do visit the site. Sign the petition. Download and print one, and circulate it, if you live in Georgia. The commission makes its report to the legislature in November. We'll be circulating the petition till then. We might see you on the courthouse steps, if you live in Fulton, Cobb or Dekalb or a number of other Georgia counties between now and then. Since the policy of mass incarceration figures to be around for some time to come, so will we.

And while you're at it, whether you live in Georgia or not, you should click here to sign the petition to support the striking prisoners in Pelican Bay, California. Later today we will include information on how to write them at our site, http//

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and based in Marietta GA where he is also a state committee member of the Georgia Green Party. He can be reached at

The Crime Rate Puzzle:

The Crime Rate Puzzle

Did incarceration reduce the crime rate, or did it get in the way?

“Crime Keeps on Falling, But Prisons Keep on Filling.” Conservative pundits have been poking fun at that headline ever since it appeared in The New York Times in 1997. For the law-and-order right, it typifies the clueless mind-set of elite liberals. Can they not comprehend that America’s soaring incarceration rate and the historic two-decade drop in crime that began in the mid-1990s might be connected?

The idea sounds straightforward enough: As we have put more people in jail, the violent crime rate has indeed dropped, from 758 victims per 100,000 people in 1991 to 429 in 2009. It’s intuitive to say that putting more murderers and rapists behind bars is the reason why. But on closer inspection, the causal link is far from clear. 

In a series of studies published in 2009, the University of Missouri-St. Louis criminol-ogist Richard Rosenfeld and the SUNY-Albany sociologist Steven Messner found that during the last 15 years, states with lower incarceration rates saw bigger drops in crime, on average, than those with lock-’em-up policies. Moreover, the historic increase in the prison population began in the early 1980s, a decade after the crime rate began to rise and a decade before it started to fall. The incarceration rate increased by more than 100 percent in the 1980s, but violent crime still increased that decade, by 22 percent.

If it wasn’t incarceration, what caused the drop? There is no shortage of theories: Scholars have pointed to everything from the legalization of abortion to the prohibition of lead-based paints. Other theories credit America’s aging population (the vast majority of criminals are under 30), President Bill Clinton’s program to put more cops on the street, and either stronger gun control laws or an increase in gun carrying by law-abiding Americans.

The studies behind all these theories claim to produce statistically significant results. Could they all be right?

“I don’t think any of them are right,” says Sam Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska. Walker has studied crime for 35 years and has written 13 books on criminal justice. “You can alter variables to make them say whatever you want them to say,” he says. “Conservatives say the crime drop was because of incarceration. Liberals say it was programs like community policing. I don’t think there’s much convincing evidence for either.”

There is an academic consensus about just two factors: the ebb in the crack trade after its peak in the late 1980s and the growth of the economy since 1992. (While it is commonly thought that the drug itself made people violent, the vast majority of “crack-related” homicides resulted from disputes that arose as dealers fought over an emerging black market.) The crack theory suggests that the anomaly was not the crime drop but the preceding spike.

In his 2009 book This Is Your Country on Drugs, the journalist Ryan Grim makes the case that the crack wave may have been a side effect of the Reagan administration’s anti-marijuana policies, which drove the price of pot so high that many dealers switched to crack. It is certainly true that the broader policy of drug prohibition has contributed to crime. The homicide rate began its steep, 20-year ascent in the early 1970s, around the same time that President Nixon gave us the modern drug war. America hadn’t seen that dramatic a shift in the homicide rate since the early 1930s, when the homicide rate bottomed out after the repeal of alcohol prohibition.

There is also strong evidence for the other theory: that our ever-improving standard of living has been quietly nudging us toward ever-safer streets. In fact, were it not for drug prohibition, we could well be living in the safest era in American history. In a 2004 study, Randall Shelden, a criminologist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and William B. Brown, research director at the Pacific Policy and Research Institute, examined crime and incarceration rates going back to 1970. They found that while the incarceration rate during that period increased by an incredible 500 percent, the overall violent crime rate remained about the same. Once the effects of the crack trade subsided, we returned to the crime rates of the early 1970s. In cities such as Los Angeles, some crimes have dropped to levels unseen since the early 1960s.

In his 2004 book A History of Force, the Independence Institute economist James L. Payne argues that during the last few centuries, deaths from all forms of human violence—war, ritual killing, state executions, homicide, and so on—have shown a remarkable decline. Payne attributes this trend to a dramatic rise in global standards of living, particularly after the industrial revolution. Our lives are more valuable now. Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker covered similar ground in a fascinating and counterintuitive 2007 lecture for the TED Talk series.

The same phenomenon Payne and Pinker describe globally could be what’s happening here in America. In his 2000 book It’s Getting Better All the Time, the late economist Julian Simon documented the remarkable, historic improvement in Americans’ standard of living, especially among the poor, during the last several generations. These improvements, unlike fluctuations in economic growth or the stock market, tend to be a one-way ratchet. The fact that 80 percent of poor households now have air conditioning, for example, is an astounding development; in 1970 just 36 percent of all households did. Perhaps not incidentally, homicides tend to rise with the temperature.

We live longer, more comfortably, more richly, and with more leisure than ever before. During the same period when the crime rate has dropped, other social indicators also have shown remarkable improvement: Rates of abortion, divorce, and teen pregnancy in America have all plummeted since the early 1990s. It seems that as we live better…we live better. The crime rate has continued to drop even in the most recent recession, though the drop has slowed. But while recessions obviously make life more difficult for many people, they don’t walk back the broader standard-of-living trends that Simon describes.

Walker worries that the lack of consensus about specific policies behind the crime drop indicates a failure of academic criminology. “If we could find a cause,” he says, “then we would have a prescription.”

But of the two causal explanations that have found the most support, one—the economy—had nothing to do with crime policy. The other, the petering out of the crack epidemic, was simply a return to normal after weathering the effects of a bad policy. Once distributors of the new drug had established turf, levels of violence returned to normal. 

It could be that we have less crime now not because of any brilliant anti-crime initiatives dreamed up by academics and politicians but because civil society has quietly churned out benefits independent of those policies. Maybe the real lesson of the last two decades is that anti-crime policies at best have little effect on the crime rate. When you factor in the drug war, they may make it worse. 

Radley Balko ( is a senior editor at reason.


School-to-Prison Pipeline Gets Its First-Ever Airing in Senate

by Julianne Hing

Despite all the outrage the school-to-prison pipeline stirs, it rarely gets the attention it demands in national policy discussions. But after years of aggressive agitating and advocacy, the topic is inching its way into the limelight. On Wednesday, Congress finally noticed, too. For the first time, the school-to-prison pipeline was the focus of a Senate hearing.

“There has never been a congressional hearing of its kind, ever,” said Jadine Johnson, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who was in Washington, D.C., for the meeting. “We see this as a landmark hearing and a very special day.”

The hearing comes less than two months after the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Meridian, Miss., and its juvenile justice court system, charging that city officials have violated students’ rights as they “routinely and systematically arrest and incarcerate children” for offenses like showing up late to class or wearing the wrong color socks ( The city, youth court system, and youth court judges have denied that they violated children’s civil rights, and have refused to hand over court records because they say doing so would violate the privacy rights of youth. The Justice Department says this excuse is unconvincing.

Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee hearing was a milestone for a movement that has fought to raise awareness about these kinds of policies in schools around the country. The issue sits squarely at the intersection of race, educational equity and criminal justice. The committee heard testimony from Obama administration officials, a former Chicago Public Schools student, reform advocates and criminal justice leaders who sought to answer some basic questions: What good has the rise of zero-tolerance school discipline policies, now responsible for three million suspensions a year, done for the students they were supposed to protect? And just as pressing: What justifiable explanations are there for the deep disparities that zero-tolerance school discipline so reliably produces?

“For many young people schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system,” said Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin, who chairs the Judiciary Committee. “A schoolyard fight that used to warrant a trip to the principal’s office,” he said, is increasingly landing kids in booking stations such that “this school-to-prison pipeline has moved scores of young people from classrooms to courtrooms.”

The phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” alludes to the structural dynamics within schools and the juvenile justice system that work to push the most vulnerable students, a disproportionate number of them black and Latino, out of school, away from their educational futures and into the waiting arms of a criminal justice system that’s all too prepared to dominate their lives. On a practical level, it refers to the rise of so-called zero-tolerance policies, which were inspired by the war on drugs and which critics argue have criminalized students with typical developmental challenges—while generating doubtful improvements in actual student behavior or school environments, but devastating impacts on students’ lives.

Research has shown that the more interaction a young person has with the criminal justice system, such as when students are introduced to the insides of police cars and detention facilities via harsh punishments for school-based infractions like talking back to a teacher or getting into a schoolyard fight, the more likely they are to come into contact with the criminal justice system in the future.

“Students who should be sent to the guidance counselor to find out what is really wrong end up at the police station,” Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the civil rights advocacy organization Advancement Project, said during her testimony in front of the congressional panel. “We are facing a discipline crisis, one that is pushing students of color out of school, by either kicking them out of school or causing them to drop out, and one that is disproportionately impacting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students and students with disabilities.”

It’s a cyclical, structural problem, said Dianis and others who testified. As it is, over 70 percent of those who are arrested in schools are African American or Latino, a number that wildly outstrips those students’ enrollment. And the unevenness extends elsewhere. When white students get suspended, it’s often for objective offenses like cutting class or graffiti, but black students in particular are far more likely to get suspended for highly subjective offenses like “defiance” or “disorderly conduct,” suggesting that adults’ implicit and overt biases play a role in how punishment is meted out.

The Justice Department lawsuit comes after other forceful moves by the Obama administration to address the school-to-prison pipeline and its disparate impact on students of color.

But take even a cursory tour through the school-to-prison pipeline landscape and what’s immediately clear is that Mississippi’s particular version, while egregious, is hardly exceptional. From Colorado to Alabama, Illinois to Texas, advocacy groups are chasing after school districts where it’s common practice to respond with harsh, swift, mandatory punishment when what many young people really need is supportive school environments and a system of justice that gets to the root of an issue when students are perceived to be acting out.

“I think that schools need to throw out the assumption that young people are all dangerous or a threat,” said Edward Ward, a graduate of Chicago’s public school system and member of the Dignity in Schools campaign, in his testimony during Wednesday’s hearing. “The discipline policies seemed to overlook ways to help students succeed. They needed proper mentors, people who could understand them. They needed a place to grow, to learn, to escape everything in our worlds that was making us grow up too quickly otherwise.”

Advocates say the Senate hearing, along with the proactive steps taken by the Departments of Justice and Education in the last year, should be considered a hopeful arbiter of positive reforms to come, or at the very least a signal of a new openness to address issues which have been ignored for far too long.

“There was a time when people were afraid to talk about this issue,” said Deborah Vagins, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU. “And things are changing. It’s critical that we’re having this hearing now.”

© 2012 ColorLines

Julianne Hing is a reporter and blogger for covering immigration, education, criminal justice, and occasionally fashion and pop culture. In 2009 Julianne was the recipient of USC Annenberg's Institute for Justice and Journalism fellowship, which funded a reporting project on the impacts of criminal deportation on immigrant families. Julianne’s writing has appeared on AlterNet, Common Dreams, Hyphen Magazine's blog, The American Prospect's blog TAPPED and Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog at The Atlantic. Julianne tweets at @juliannehing.

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