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School-to-Prison Pipeline Still Functions During Pandemic, Advocates Warn

COVID-19 hasn’t stopped the school-to-prison pipeline.

Despite school closings or truncated classes  as a result of the pandemic, some schoolchildren continue to be the victims  of “zero tolerance” policies that punish unruly behavior with arrest or suspension, a webinar on youth justice reform heard Thursday.

Students punished in this way are also more likely to be Black, research suggests.

josh rovner

Josh Rovner

“Stories about kids acting up in school and getting arrested and detained that same day…have not stopped just because schools are physically closed,” said Joshua Rovner, a senior advocacy associate with The Sentencing Project.

“Kids are getting in trouble for not doing their homework or not logging into class—things that violate the terms of their probation—not for the underlying offense.”

Rovner cited the widely reported case of a Michigan girl who was locked up for nine months for not doing her online homework.

He added that studies also show that school districts with a predominantly Black or brown student body are more likely to have “zero tolerance” policies that target behavior which, in predominantly white districts, might earn lesser punishment, such as discipline by a school principal.

In more integrated school districts, “black students are generally treated more harshly than their white peers for the same behaviors,” Rovner said. “White youth misbehavior is considered a medical problem to be treated, and black youth misbehavior is considered criminal.”

Rovner was speaking at the third webinar in a series exploring the challenges of youth justice reform.

The series  is organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report, with the support of the Tow  Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The pandemic has added new burdens to young people and families caught in the juvenile justice system in a number of ways, the webinar was told.

Amy Borror

Amy Borror

“We’ve always known that young people’s safety and health are actually at greater risk when they’re removed from their homes and put into facilities,” said Amy Borror, a justice systems analyst with the National Juvenile Defender Center.

“What the COVID crisis and the other (financial) crises of 2020 have done is just highlighted these.”

In some respects, the pandemic has made things worse by adding an additional financial burden to families who cannot afford the additional fees or costs associated with turning the system into a virtual one.

“In order to participate via Zoom for remote hearings, you have to have the equipment, you have to have a computer, you have to have internet access,” she said. “But the entire workaround for in-person hearings presupposes a position of privilege, and obviously youth and families who are in the (juvenile) system don’t have those privileges.”

Borrar said one of the highest priorities in youth justice reform was assuring children and their families had access to counsel, especially during the pandemic.

“Only 11 states provide every child a lawyer, regardless of financial situation,” she said. “How many teenagers do you know who have the money to go out and hire a defense lawyer?

“We  believe that children should be presumed indigent, and that counsel should be automatically appointed.”