Juvenile Justice Reform
Southern Echo works on juvenile justice reform issues with a wide variety of grassroots and statewide organizations through the MS Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse. Some of the core values in this work are:
- Shut down the pipeline from schoolhouse to jailhouse: The pipeline from schoolhouse to jailhouse begins in schools. Many school districts in Mississippi continue to use harsh, excessive, sometimes violent disciplinary practices as a first response towards students whom the teachers consider to be acting out. This school environment often leads to students being referred to the Juvenile Justice or Youth Court system, where the students build a negative record, become “marked” or targeted for further abuse in the juvenile system and at school, and often are not permitted back in school once they finish their incarcerations. These at-school practices include:
- beating of students by administrators in the name of corporal punishment;
- putting students in detention or In-School-Suspension where little or no educational work is done;
- suspending students often or expelling students for up to two school years; and
- sending the students to Alternative School, where the educational opportunities often do not meet state standards under the law and regulations.
- Often the alleged infractions are minor and non-violent and could be resolved without separating students from the educational process; and
- Often the students have little opportunity to share their perspective on the events, and when they do their views are often met with disparagement.
In these schools teachers and administrators appear more interested in submission to authority than in helping students to learn how to deal with the issues underlying their behavior. The focus is on validation of authority rather than teacher development and classroom management.
- Provide to effective legal representation at all stages of proceedings in school or court: Students ought to have the right and access to effective legal representation at both administrative proceedings in the school system and in judicial proceedings in Youth Court or Juvenile Court. The right to an education in school is a constitutionally-protected right and the loss of that right should not result from arbitrary or capricious decisions by administrators or school boards. Students, by virtue of their age, inexperience and status as juveniles, are normally no match for adults armed with authority and trained to exercise dominion over the needs and interests of students. The only fair way to level the playing field when the rights of students are at stake is to enable them to have competent attorneys or trained student advocates committed to effective representation of the needs and interests of the students.
- End the abuse of children at the detention centers and training schools: Notwithstanding a number of court decisions and the intervention of the US Department of Justice to end the abuse of children at detention centers and training school, corrections personnel continue to be accused of harming students physically and psychologically. Since 2003 the schoolhouse to jailhouse coalition has brought alleged abuses of incarcerated children to the attention of state legislators, the state’s Attorney General, the US Department of Justice, law enforcement officials and judges. Southern Echo, in collaboration with Coalition members, will continue to fight to end conditions at youth incarceration facilities that fail to protect the health, safety and welfare of the children.
- Re-focus incarceration policies toward use of less-expensive, more beneficial community-based juvenile centers near family and community: When children are separated in facilities that are far from their families and communities, it makes it difficult for families to visit and support their children. This isolation of the children makes it more difficult for the children to prepare for return to family, community and school. Research-based evidence shows that using community-based facilities close to home is both less-expensive and produces better results where families and community can be supportive and can monitor the facilities to hold them accountable to provide the health and education services to which the children are entitled, and to ensure that abuse of the children does not take place.
- Implement positive re-entry programs in schools and communities to support children after release from incarceration: One of the worst outcomes of the schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline is the stigmatization of the children – marking them for outcast status – and, in essence, writing them off. This mark is applied and reinforced when public schools deny these children re-entry into the public school system, or will only permit re-entry if they are segregated into the Alternative School where they cannot obtain a mainstream education. In addition, often neither the schools nor the correction system provide the support services needed to assist the child to make effective transition back into the community and school. If they are at a point where employment may be more appropriate than school the youth do not receive assistance with the development of the tools and skills needed to obtain and retain employment.