Virginia’s Criminal Justice System – The Case for Reform

The death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman have focused the public’s attention on the issue of race in America – both on the streets and within our criminal justice system.  While we must all respect constitutionally guaranteed due process rights, we must also not confuse the need to respect due process with the need to accept a criminal justice system that:

-    Disproportionately impacts people of color;
-    Lacks transparency;
-    Wastes tax dollars;
-    Enables abuses of power;
-    Relies on ineffective solutions; and
-    Undermines the right to vote.

Throughout the fall, we will highlight these concerns in our blog series, Virginia’s Criminal Justice System – The Case for Reform.

School-to-prison pipeline – Feeding the Criminal Justice System

By Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications

The numbers are shocking:

-    Over 90,000.  The number of Virginia students who were suspended or expelled in 2010-2011.
-    Over 27,000.  The number of short-term suspensions issued to Virginia elementary school students in 2010-2011.
-    Almost 4 times.  The increased likelihood in Virginia that an African American student would be suspended compared to a white student in 2010-2011.

These numbers illustrate the imperative behind the ACLU of Virginia’s efforts to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, which funnels children out of the public school system and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. These numbers are the result of a misguided and counterproductive approach to school discipline that is discriminatory, fiscally irresponsible, and ineffective.

As with the adult criminal justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately impacts children of color.  As Just Children noted in its 2011 report, Educate Every Child: Promoting Positive Solutions to School Discipline in Virginia, in addition to being disciplined at a higher rate, African American students are:
-    Disciplined more harshly than their white classmates who engage in similar behavior; and
-    Usually disciplined for more subjective reasons (i.e. disrespect, excessive noise, and loitering).

According to the report, there is no research to support the argument that African American students misbehave more frequently.

In addition, students who face suspension or expulsion are more likely to drop out of school.  So, why is a policy that leads to higher dropout rates fiscally irresponsible?  The answer is simple — $582,000.  That is the lifetime social and fiscal cost of a single high school dropout.  Furthermore, many dropouts face the socio-economic factors that increase the likelihood of interaction with the juvenile and criminal justice systems, which is an additional burden on tax payers and on our society.

To make matters worse, research suggests that these policies are ultimately ineffective at reducing behavioral problems in public schools.  They simply don’t work. Instead of continuing disciplinary methods that are discriminatory and ineffective, the Commonwealth should embrace evidence-based solutions, such as the Effective School-wide Discipline (ESD) program, which works to create a positive school environment.  And, as Just Children found, it works!  Between 2007 and 2011 the ESD program in Virginia:

-    Reduced office discipline referrals (29% for general education students and 51% for special education students);
-    Reduced in-school suspensions (45.3% for general education students and 64.8% for special education students);
-    Reduced out-of-school suspensions (75% for general education students and 85.6% for special education students);
-    Reduced the disparity in discipline rates between African American and white students; and
-    Saved 9.2 hours of administrative time and 4.6 hours of instructional time weekly.

Unfortunately, only 12% of Virginia’s public schools used ESD between 2007 and 2011.  With the future of thousands of Virginia students on the line – as well as our economy – it’s time to ensure that  all Virginia schools end their reliance on the failed punitive approach to discipline and instead embrace programs like ESD that have been shown through evidence to make our public schools both safer and more productive.

Want to help? Please sign up to become a Grassroots Lobbyist!  Together we can end these discriminatory, fiscally irresponsible, and ineffective policies and practices, and ensure a better future for our children and our Commonwealth.