Zero Tolerance: Prioritizing Incarceration Over Education

prison

prison (Photo credit: :D ar.)

Zero-tolerance policies have been incarcerating children for minor offenses since the 1980′s. Intended to reduce crime, they have instead undermined the effectiveness of our schools, while costing taxpayers dearly in terms of economic development.

These are the findings of a new report on one of the nation’s worst-case states: Mississippi. “Handcuffs on Success: The Extreme School Discipline Crisis in Mississippi Public Schools (pdf),” was issued jointly by the ACLU of Mississippi, the Mississippi State Conference NAACP and the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Advancement Project.

In the report we get a solid look at the infamous school-to-prison pipeline that Mississippi has become infamous for over the years. Students, particularly students of color, are remanded to the police for infractions such as violating dress code or “defiance”.

The zero-tolerance policies simply make it easy to put a kid into the system. Once that has occurred, it is incredibly easy to incarcerate them over the smallest things, things generally accepted as normal for teens of any race.

The Jackson Free Press enumerates the fiscal costs of this misguided approach:

Harsh, unwarranted discipline of children results in huge costs for Mississippi taxpayers. Funding for prisons has increased 166 percent from 1990 to 2007, while funding for public schools continues to decline year after year. ‘Thus, in fiscal terms, the State is prioritizing incarceration over education,’ the report states. Costs of guards, security equipment, court costs and the cost of running alternative schools is just the tip of the financial iceberg to Mississippi. The long-term cost of kids dropping out of school–often the result of harsh disciplinary practices–is far greater.

From lost tax revenue to higher public-health, public-assistance and criminal-justice costs, the cost ‘is likely tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars every year,’ the report states. ‘Economists have estimated that each student who graduates from high school, on average, generates economic benefits to the public sector of $209,100 over her or his lifetime. Thus, the more than 16,000 members of every Mississippi 9th-grade class who fail to graduate on time cost the state (more than) $3 billion.’

It has always been a recurring theme in our work that it is more expensive to do nothing. It is a truism supported by more research every day. As demonstrated above, it is far more expensive to the American taxpayers who pick up the tab, as well as being expensive in lives and lost potential. No matter how you look at it, the state of juvenile justice in Mississippi is an albatross around the neck of everyone in the state.

Let’s close with an infographic. Visual illustrations can often communicate a situation when mere words fail to do so adequately. With that thought in mind, I’d like to leave you with this comparison of our national spending on education vs incarceration.

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