The United States has the largest prison population in the world, with China and Russia not lagging far behind (BBC). 2.2 million adults and children are locked up across the variety of correctional facilities housed within the United States (PPI). With such strikingly high incarceration rates, it begs the question, are crimes more prevalent in the United States, or is the nation just more punitive than other countries? Both of the suggested answers play a role in influencing high incarceration rates, but neither is fully correct. It is important to note that, Blacks and Hispanics are overly represented in the prison system. Within the U.S population, 12% of adults are Black, and 16% are Hispanic. Whereas, 33% of the prison population is Black, and 23% is Hispanic. To put this into context, 64% of the U.S adult population is White, compared to 30% of the prison population (Pew Research Center). From this data, it is incorrect to conclude that Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to commit crimes, therefore, legitimizing the high incarceration rate. More accurately, the mass incarceration problem plaguing the United States is a result of deep systemic racism. Even after the formal abolishment of Jim Crow, other laws and policies continued the oppression of African-Americans; one of these policies is redlining. Redlining resulted in segregation, excessive policing, and stilted the progress of families living in these respective communities. Within The United States, mass-incarceration is perpetuated, and worsened, by the school to prison pipeline, a system which is a direct byproduct of redlining communities.
By definition, the process of redlining occurs when banks and insurance companies reject loans or mortgages solely based on the geographic area in which the respective customer resides (Ezeugwu). In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration was established to issue private mortgages, in turn, dropping interest rates, and decreasing down payments; African-Americans were barred from this process (Coates). During this time, neighborhoods were mapped to determine stability, “A” neighborhoods were considered excellent, and eligible for insurance, compared to, “D” neighborhoods which were considered poor, and struggled to receive FHA backing. Unsurprisingly, “D” neighborhoods were primarily Black communities. Conversely, “A” neighborhoods did not include one Black family (Coates). The FHA justified redlining by claiming if Black families moved into a highly rated community the property value would go down, therefore putting the loan at risk (Gross). The Federal Housing Administration program aided in helping White working-class families move out of public housing. African-Americans filled the vacancies, and public housing shifted from the working class to the poor (Gross). The FHA measures blocked many African-American families from owning a home, stunting their ability to achieve equal wealth, success and opportunity in the short-term.
Following the outlaw of redlining by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, some African-American families were able to “upgrade,” and own homes. However, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates, the majority of damage to African-American communities was already done, in addition, segregation continued under the radar (Coates). Communities which resulted from redlining continue to struggle with high unemployment and poverty, making it difficult for people to improve their situation (Coates). Within the United States, it is common for children to attend the public school within their geographic district. As a result of redlining, school districts in poor areas tend to be racially and socio-economically homogeneous. “D” communities receive less money through property taxes, resulting in poor schools, worse teachers, and fewer resources. Additionally, White schools are more likely to receive supplemental funding from the government. (White). The effects of redlining have relegated students to subpar education options, generating an achievement gap which makes it difficult for students to strive for college, and other opportunities.
Within poor school districts, created through redlining, one is likely to identify the manifestation of “the school-to-prison pipeline. The “school-to-prison pipeline” is a concept which refers to the funneling of children and teenagers directly from public school into juvenile and criminal detention centers. The pipeline disproportionately effects those coming from poverty or abuse (ACLU). In fact, “over 50% of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are African-American or Hispanic” (EJI). Law professor, Michelle Alexander, cites “zero-tolerance policies,” as the catalyst for the funnel system (Alexander). By definition, “zero tolerance refers to strict, uncompromising, automatic punishment to eliminate undesirable behavior” (Wilson). Originally, “zero-tolerance policies” were devised as a mechanism for combatting school violence, specifically, to reduce school shootings. However, zero-tolerance policies shifted from its initial focus to automatically expelling or suspending, a student for, “alcohol, tobacco, drugs, fighting, insubordination, dress code and disruptive behavior” (Wilson). Zero-tolerance policies are commonly implemented in poor communities, as they are deemed more “unsafe,” however, the mentioned infractions occur in all schools, not just poor districts. The logic behind zero-tolerance policies is inherently flawed; turning schools into policing grounds, simply infuriates and provokes students. Instead, a safe, encouraging environment, would help bring out students untapped potential. Through redlining, the government is responsible for the development of poor communities, and rather than repairing the negative effects, zero-tolerance policies are enacted, creating “the-school-to-prison pipeline” which perpetuates the norm.
If a child comes from poverty, surrounded by drugs and violence, it is intuitive to assume their life experiences will translate into their behavior in the school setting. The school should nurture the students from a young age, on the contrary, the school’s implement zero-tolerance policies early in the child’s educational experience. For example, Kaylb Wiley, a 7-year-old student in Kansas City, was handcuffed and briskly escorted by a school law enforcement officer, after reacting to people bullying him for his hearing impairment (Kirk). Handcuffing a young child is incredibly traumatizing, and can lead to distrust of teachers, police, and authority in general. Beginning in preschool, in Delaware specifically, “black students are only 18% of the students, yet, they comprised, 42% of students suspend once, and 48% of the students suspended more than once” (EJI). According to research, “educators can prevent students from entering the pipeline by establishing relationships of mutual trust, building a caring learning environment, and applying positive behavior approaches to prevent and respond to problem behavior” (Coggshall, Osher, & Colombi). However, in poor school districts teachers are often unequipped to deal with situations in this manner. The lack of funding prohibits teachers from receiving the proper training to handle students with behavioral issues. In many cases, teachers are so overwhelmed and overworked, they feel the only option is to send the child away. In fact, 97% of suspensions and expulsions are at the discretion of teachers. Proving that teachers play a substantial role in perpetuating “the school-to-prison pipeline.”
With constant police searches and strict rules, already disinterested students, are more likely to skip class or drop out. In fact, a study titled, The Breaking Rules, found that students who experienced at least one suspension were five times more likely to drop out, and three times more likely to have a brush with the juvenile justice system (Wilson). Imagine this scenario, a third-grade boy is repeatedly suspended for constantly being disruptive in class. The child experiences a significant amount of problems at home. His continuous negative behavior, causes teachers to lose hope, and the boy feels educationally isolated. Entering middle and high school, education is no longer a commitment for the boy, as he feels undervalued. With a lack of educational support and negative influences outside of school, the now teenager partakes in drugs and alcohol. From here the path can go many ways, the boy drops out, loses faith in the school system, gets expelled, or faces juvenile charges. But most likely, the boy is set up for failure and is prone to future crime, and arrests. This fictional example, illustrate the negative spiral of “zero-tolerance policies,” and how it directly fuels the school-to-prison pipeline.
From 1970 to 2009, the prison population within the United States grew by 700% (ACLU). It makes logical sense to associate the dramatic spike with The War on Drugs and “Tough on Crime” policies. These policies are responsible for the rise in incarceration rate, but not for the cultural shift towards mass-incarceration. In fact, the influence of these two policies on poor school districts is to blame for the cultural shift. The philosophy behind “Tough on Crime,” is emulated through “zero-tolerance policies.” Redlined communities, were targets for the application of the aforementioned policies, leading to a high rate of arrests within poor communities. A national, longitudinal study, followed children that had an association to people who are, or were, incarcerated, and found that they did worse academically, and ultimately were at a higher risk of failing or dropping out (Skelton). As mentioned, dropping out of school is correlated with facing the criminal or juvenile court system and prisons, leading to a criminal record which, “authorizes legal discrimination against you in employment, housing, access to education, public benefits.” (ACLU). Since the school system is designed to set children up for failure, children of ex-convicts, are more likely to follow their parent’s trajectory. The War on Drugs and “Tough on Crime” policies, influenced the development of “the-school-to-prison pipeline,” which shifted the culture to legitimize policing and early targeting within inner-city schools. There are currently 1.2 million Black and Hispanic people incarcerated within the United States. Given the flawed school discipline system, children, and relatives of these people are more likely to experience some form of incarceration in their lifetime. Taking into account the relationship between convicts and their family, the number of incarcerated individuals will continue to rise exponentially, perpetuating the mass-incarceration problem. Redlining has ignited a domino effect, creating a continuous cycle of poverty and incarceration.
Analyzing the root causes of racial disparity in Delaware’s criminal justice system will aid in illuminating the correlation of redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline, and mass incarceration. The state is comprised of 22% African-Americans, whereas the prison population is comprised of 58.3% African-Americans, illustrating the racial disparities in Delaware (EJI). Unsurprisingly, redlining is identified as one of the main root causes to the problem, and created a situation where, “white students attend schools among a student body in which thirty percent of students are poor, while Black and Hispanic students attend schools with sixty-five and sixty-six percent poor student populations, respectively” (EJI). In Delaware, much like other places throughout the United States, there is an assumption of guilt held by the police which makes African-American “Delawareans” a target (EJI). Delaware acts as a microcosm for the racist narrative running throughout the United States.
The Equal Justice Initiative declared that segregated schools in Delaware are a direct result of redlining, and within poor communities, there are myriad of factors that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. Firstly, the lack of resources encourages teachers to “push out” difficult students, and create more resources for other students. Secondly, there are specific testing policies which reward schools with higher scores, as a result, administrators separate low performing students from high performing student, putting the former at an extreme disadvantage. In impoverished communities, children endure, “housing instability, inadequate nutrition, exposure to pollution, poor healthcare, family abuse and neglect, exposure to violence, developmental delays, chronic stress, depression, and possibly even stunted brain development” (EJI). All these factors, which are completely out of the children’s control, make them more prone to disciplinary actions.
Within their briefing, the Equal Justice Initiative suggested that Delaware can fix the racial disparity within their criminal justice system by desegregating schools (EJI). However, desegregating schools alone will not completely resolve the problem. If schools are simply desegregated, racism would find a way to develop in alternative ways; most likely, through tracking and implicit bias. Removing tracking and implicit bias requires training educators and restructuring the education system, two adjustments that would significantly shift the culture, and decrease incarceration rates within Delaware.
Heather Mac Donald, a Thomas Smith Fellow at The Manhattan Policy Institute, spoke about “the myth of criminal-justice racism,” during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (Mac Donald). During her testimony, Mac Donald rejected the claim that the War on Drugs and systemic racism are to blame for mass-incarceration. Rather, Mac Donald attributes mass-incarceration to a rise in violent crimes. During Mac Donald’s testimony, she states,
A 1994 Judiciary Department survey of felony cases from the country’s 75 largest urban areas found that Blacks actually had a lower chance of prosecution following a felony than whites. Following conviction, blacks were more likely to be sentenced to prison, however, due to their more extensive criminal histories and the gravity of their current offense.
The War on Drugs is not the sole reason for mass-incarceration, but it plays a role. Mac Donald is correct in that there are more people convicted of violent crimes than drug crimes, however, the survey she cites as support for her argument is a clear contradiction. The survey’s former claim, “Blacks actually had a lower chance of prosecution following a felony than whites,” simply proves that Black people are arrested without sufficient evidence at a higher rate. The latter claim is in direct contradiction to Mac Donald’s overall point, stating that Black people are more likely to be sentenced because of their “extensive criminal histories.” Mac Donald is admitting to the fact that Blacks are more likely to be convicted for violent crimes, yet in the same breath rejects systemic racism. Given the discrepancy between the United States African-American population and incarceration rate, it is clear that systemic racism is at play. The rise in violent crime within the “75 largest urban communities,” is a response to a variety of factors, including, the school-to-prison pipeline’s “zero-tolerance policy”, which, as illustrated through this paper, is a byproduct of redlining. Mac Donald and The Manhattan Policy Institute are clearly incorrect on the role racism plays in the reality of mass-incarceration.
There is clearly a direct linear relationship among redlining, the “school-to-prison pipeline”, and mass incarceration. Redlining is responsible for the development of poor communities, and poor schools. “Zero-tolerance policies,” specifically prevalent in poor schools, acts as one of the main impetuses to incarceration. When five-year-old children are expelled for behavior out of their control, there is a significant problem. As a result of “the-school-to-prison pipeline”, there is a vicious cycle of incarceration within redlined communities, all rooted within systemic racism. However, despite how bleak the future looks, the staggering high incarcerations statistics are not irreversible. Dismantling the “school-to-prison pipeline,” although not an easy task, is the first step towards working to eliminate the culture of mass-incarceration. In order to do so, people need to become cognizant of the structural racism which rears its ugly head in a variety of manifestations, in this case, through redlining. Understanding the roots of mass-incarceration, specifically redlining and “the-school-to-prison pipeline,” allows the nation to hopefully solve the problem one day.
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