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When the 'Prison' Part of the School-to-Prison Pipeline Gets Bad

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Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal enters the Senate chambers to speak to lawmakers on the last day of the legislative session earlier this year in Atlanta. Deal signed legislation this year that makes several reforms to the juvenile justice system.

Tough discipline techniques affect hundreds of thousands of students annually, and for many, misbehavior ends with prison. But new developments in Georgia's juvenile justice system show just how rough the school-to-prison pipeline can get.

The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice came under heavy scrutiny this week after a revelation by its commissioner last Sunday that 700 open cases over the past year and a half remained open long past their mandated periods for resolution; investigations are supposed to be closed within 45 days. Of those, Commissioner Avery Niles said, 141 cases met the federal definition of sexual abuse.

After further investigation by an advisory committee, 12 of the staff-on-youth sexual abuse cases remain open and under investigation.

Niles suspended 18 investigators in June over initial federal findings about prolonged investigations. A June 25 press release disclosed that investigators had been warned in May about compliance with investigation policies, before the release of the federal study. Following the release of the advisory committee's findings, all of the investigators have been either reassigned or punished in some manner, with one retiring.

This is the latest headache for Georgia's juvenile justice agency and the facilities it oversees, which have been engaged in a years-long quagmire involving high turnover and mismanagement.

The sorest area in the system seems to be the Augusta Youth Development Campus. In addition to findings in the federal study that the institution had some of the worst sexual abuse violations nationwide, the past two years also included a break-out by five juveniles, and the murder of another due to employee negligence. Top justice department brass have fired dozens of employees for misconduct over the same time period. Since the November 2011 homicide, five different directors have run the Augusta facility.

The country's juvenile justice system runs on an implicit agreement that its wards will one day re-enter society, and even school. The U.S. Supreme Court decided as much in June 2012 when it ruled 5-4 against life without parole as a sentence for juvenile murderers.

"Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences," wrote Justice Elena Kagan, in the majority opinion for Miller v. Alabama.

The problems Kagan speaks of are best addressed when the juvenile justice system runs smoothly, an adjective that would not be used objectively to describe the Augusta Youth Development Campus.

"Egregious and often-repeated incidences of sexual violence serve not to teach these youth a lesson about the consequences of being incarcerated," Craig DeRoche, the president of the criminal justice-reform program Justice Fellowship, wrote in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution opinion piece. "Rather, they produce a teen who has become more hardened while incarcerated, someone who is more likely to take out their well-justified anger on others in unhealthy ways, often resulting in additional crimes."

In early May, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law some major reforms of the juvenile justice system, including new sentencing provisions and better data collection, with a stronger focus on rehabilitation. That becomes effective Jan. 1, 2014, although agencies are already working provisions into place.

The new law is a positive step for those wary of the juvenile justice system and the school-to-prison "pipeline" that leads to it. Already, many local and state governments are wading into restorative justice techniques, instead of suspension and expulsion.

Many teachers oppose bans on harsh discipline, however, saying that some students just aren't fit for the classroom. Furthermore, some disciplined students are stuck in a kind of limbo between their normal school and the justice system, where they're largely on their own.

For youth in the justice system, then, perhaps it's not about being left behind; it's about being pushed behind.

Photo: Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal enters the Senate chambers to speak to lawmakers on the last day of the legislative session earlier this year in Atlanta. Deal signed legislation this year that makes several reforms to the juvenile justice system. —David Goldman/AP-File

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