Are We Criminalizing Our Students?

An overemphasis on criminal justice undermines K-12 education

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It’s been said that a budget is a statement of policy, the surest way to determine the values and priorities a society embraces. How then should we interpret the extraordinary spending spree that the United States has engaged in for the past three decades, investing trillions of dollars to expand a criminal-justice system that has incarcerated millions while states struggle to provide adequate funding for education?

Despite the deep political divisions laid bare by the November election, there is an emerging consensus that we are spending too much money to put too many Americans behind bars. Our prison and jail population has tripled to about 2.2 million since 1982. As of 2013, 8 million Americans—one in 40—were behind bars or within the probation and parole system. For black residents of all ages and genders, the rate is one in 18.

The spending extends beyond our prisons. Between 1983 and 2012, we added more than 1.1 million police officers, corrections officers, prosecutors, and other justice-system employees to the public payroll.

"The $3.4 Trillion Mistake,” a recent report from Communities United, Make the Road New York, and Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, details that between 1983 and 2012, our nation spent an extra $3.4 trillion on the justice system as our spending on crime and punishment increased some 229 percent when adjusted for inflation. (These organizations receive funding and support from our respective organizations, the Edward W. Hazen Foundation and the Communities for Just Schools Fund.)

Are We Criminalizing Our Students? America’s outsize spending on criminal justice comes at the expense of schooling, write Lori Bezahler and Allison R. Brown.

The emphasis on criminal justice pervades our public schools, where an estimated 43,000 law-enforcement officers now patrol the halls. That includes 5,000 police officers in New York City alone. In Texas, 167 school districts operate their own police departments. The increased presence of police in schools has contributed to higher rates of suspension and arrest and an overall punitive culture. In California, for instance, 30,000 public school students were referred to law enforcement in the 2009-10 school year alone.

This upside-down investment actually makes schools less safe for students, in part because the presence of police and security equipment is effectively criminalizing behavior that would once have merited only a phone call home to Mom or Dad. It also reinforces and institutionalizes a broken mindset that children of color and the schools they attend are dangerous—racist stereotypes that follow children into adulthood.

At a time when state and local governments are slashing school budgets, the excessive spending on criminal justice means fewer resources for healthier school buildings, recruitment and retention of highly qualified teachers, arts and music programs, and the sort of restorative-justice practices that emphasize resolving conflict rather than suspending students.

"The presence of police and security equipment is effectively criminalizing behavior that would once have merited only a phone call home to Mom or Dad."

What could we accomplish if we ended the spending binge on our bloated criminal-justice system and reinvested the money instead in our schools and communities?

There are encouraging signs that our policymakers realize the folly of spending this much money on criminal justice. Even in a deeply divided Congress, there has been bipartisan support for reforms that would end some mandatory minimum sentences and reduce mass incarceration.

But reducing spending is only half the equation. We must demand that the savings be used to bolster budgets for health care, economic development, poverty alleviation, and, perhaps most critically, education. This is justice reinvestment.

Think about it. In 2016 dollars, the hike in criminal-justice spending amounts to an extra $206 billion every year. For $159 billion a year, we could increase spending by 25 percent in every K-12 public school. Another $20 billion a year could create a universal pre-K program; $82 billion could eliminate tuition at every public college and university.

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The money going directly from education budgets into policing would be better spent on increasing educators’ salaries, investing in school facilities and materials, strengthening curricula, and increasing support for all students.

Reducing criminal-justice spending can begin with school resource officers, who are often basically police officers or sheriff’s deputies who patrol our schools. Some California districts now have more police officers in their schools than counselors. While it might be possible to retrain the officers to act as pseudo-counselors, why not leave the job to the trained professionals and shift school culture to one in which the norm is healing and healthy correction, rather than punishment? That could help us create a school climate that encourages learning without the presence of law enforcement.

We have a growing consensus in this country that criminal-justice spending is way out of whack. We have an increasing recognition that justice—whether racial, social, or economic—has eluded young people who grow up furthest from opportunity. We need to fix this problem, to end the addiction to mass incarceration, and to plug the pipeline that leads from school to prison by reinvesting the millions we now spend on criminal justice in our communities, our schools, and our children.

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