Sunday, March 23, 2014

How Early Do Disparities in Punishment & Sentencing in America Begin? Try Pre-School

Guess who's most likely to be disciplined in US schools?

The reality of the huge gaps in disparities in America based solely on race in terms of indicators like unemployment, access to mortgages, insurance rates, car loan rates and total savings are glaring enough in these troubled economic times.

Perception is a huge part of that, and when we look at how perception impacts how disciplinary measures are handed out to students in US schools, some disturbing trends are evident.  

According to Department of Education statistics, disparities in punishment based on race in the US begin as early as preschool.

Of 8,000 preschool students who were suspended from school in 2011 (yes, that's toddlers suspended from school) an alarming 45% were black or Latino children compared to 26% of white children- even though the actual enrollment rates are actually the reverse.

It's a disturbing trend that continues right on through kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school. Between 2011 - 2012, a staggering 42% of K-12 students who were suspended were black, even though blacks make up only 16% of the overall population.

The math doesn't paint a pretty picture. But it does offer some insight into how the judicial system and law enforcement agencies serve as catalysts for channeling so many minority offenders into the vicious cycle of the American prison system - many of whom are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses.

There's no question that ground-breaking books like author Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" or historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad's    "The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and, the Making of Modern Urban America" originally published in 2010 have helped to bring a new energy to, and analysis of, the approach to prison reform in the United States.

Groups like The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow (CENJCPNJ) are part of a growing nation-wide network of grass roots movements dedicated to prison reform in a modern industrialized nation where the statistics are both alarming and unambiguous.

Despite ranking third behind China and India in terms of population, the United States is the world's leader in terms of the total number of human beings incarcerated in prisons. While our politicians are quick to point to China, Iran, Russia and other nations for their human rights violations, there's no nation on Earth that imprisons a higher proportion of it's own populace than America.

According to The Sentencing Project, there are currently more than 2.2 million men and women imprisoned in America; that represents an increase of 500% over the past thirty years.

Despite such daunting statistics, real gains have been made by organizations, scholars, legal experts, politicians and activists finding innovative ways to address the myriad injustices resulting from disparities in incarceration rates to enact meaningful change.

For example, according to an article in the Des Moines Register by Rekha Basu, recently a delegation made up of representatives from the NAACP and voting rights groups traveled to Geneva to petition the United Nations to address the issue of American ex-prisoners having their voting rights stripped away by state legislatures even after their sentences have been served and they've been released.

How does that translate in terms of numbers? According a report entitled "Democracy Imprisoned", a staggering 8% of the adult African-American population is disenfranchised from voting as a result of state laws that bar former inmates from the ballot box compared to 1.8% of non-whites.

Look at the statistics in some Red States: 23% of African-Americans can't vote in Florida, in Kentucky (Senator Rand Paul and Senator Mitch McConnell's state) 22% of the adult black population can't vote - in Virginia 20% can't vote. Or look at Iowa, African-Americans make up 3.2% of the total population there - yet they make up 26% of the prison population.

Criminalizing non-violent behavior isn't just limited to harsh drug sentencing laws these days either. Even though debtor's prisons were largely outlawed in the United States around the 1830's and the US Supreme Court ruled that jailing people for being unable to pay debts violated the Constitution in 1970, even today some cities and towns still lock people up for failure to pay debts. reports that four residents of Montgomery, Alabama recently filed a lawsuit in Federal court after they claimed they were locked up for unpaid parking tickets and forced to do cleaning work inside the jail to work off their debt.

Some cities and towns in Georgia not only lock people up for failing to pay debts, they make the debtors pay a monthly fee to Judicial Corrections Services; JCS is a private company based in Georgia that handles debt collection for a number of municipalities across the US.

Back in 2012 a judge in Harpserville, Alabama severed the town's contract with JCS because he deemed the company functioned as a "debtors prison" that piled excessive fees on people convicted of minor offenses then jailed them when they couldn't pay.

Of course companies like JCS aren't new in the United States. The south has a long and particularly disturbing history with debtors prisons and "work farms" that once functioned as a state-sanctioned method of keeping huge numbers of mostly poor rural African-Americans incarcerated doing arduous enforced physical labor sometimes for years over relatively low, or completely fabricated fees that courts knew the defendants couldn't pay because they were so poor.

For a nation that loves to present itself as a beacon of human rights to other countries, the US certainly has a broad range of issues going on within its own borders that require more public attention, as well as meaningful legal remedies to address them.

Perhaps if we can start by looking closer at why much higher percentages of black and Latino preschoolers are being suspended, we can find ways to stem the tide of young lives being steered into the American prison system; lives forever branded into a state of permanent 2nd class citizenship from being simultaneously shut out of the voting booth and the chance to find a job to become productive members of society. 

Sadly for many kids, it begins early and lasts a lifetime.

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