Time To Reroute the Preschool-to-Prison Pipeline

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Westchester Academy teenThe New York Times recently reported on the disturbing surge in violence at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, where the use of force by correction officers has jumped 240 percent over the past decade. Three days later, MSNBC reported on the disturbing “school-to-prison pipeline” that is driving our nation’s “problem” children from suspensions straight to arrests and jail. Most upsetting of all, new data shows this pipeline begins as early as preschool.

I recently visited the Division of Criminal Justice Services to discuss the current rates of violence among youth in our country, particularly those struggling with addiction or co-occurring mental illness. During our meeting, a representative from the DCJS commented, “It’s getting more and more difficult to reach these kids. They’re just not listening. They don’t care.” It’s not that they’re bad kids; rather, their behaviors stem from years of trauma, sexual abuse, and/or low self-esteem that they haven’t been able to overcome. Maybe they never had a good mentor, maybe they had a disorderly family life, maybe their school is failing, or maybe their behaviors are an outcome of poverty and financial desperation. Whatever the root problem, it’s clear that it can’t be solved by the criminal justice system alone. In New York, for example, detaining young people in jail-like facilities upstate led to an 81% recidivism rate and cost roughly $266,000 per youth per year. Instead, there needs to be an alliance between services in order to reroute kids from a life of crime and, far too often, addiction.

Vincent Schiraldi, recently appointed by Mayor DeBlasio to serve as senior adviser to the Office of Criminal Justice, promotes a concept he calls “the third way”—an innovative approach that looks beyond the NY justice system’s arbitrary categorization of juveniles (under age 16) vs. “adults” (over age 16). Schiraldi argues that treating a 16-year-old the same as a 40-year-old is only going to further isolate that child and likely trap him in the criminal justice system for life. Instead, we should take a hint from Europe, which Schiraldi points out is “increasingly recognizing young adults (16-24) as a distinct population deserving of special treatment, housing, confidentiality protections, and rehabilitative programming.”

Luckily, this type of programming for youth is available—at Phoenix House and elsewhere. We just need to fill in the gaps and make sure kids in need actually get there. Our own Phoenix House Academy in Westchester provides substance abuse treatment as well as academic education for at risk teens. The New York Horticultural Society even runs fantastic horticulture therapy programs at both our Academy and Rikers Island, teaching marketable and therapeutic gardening skills to teens. But therapy alone isn’t enough to change the culture, or even improve the atmosphere at Rikers much. No one deserves to be “beaten by at least ten corrections officers” as the Times describes happening to a Rikers inmate recently. Instead, those inmates – the vast majority of whom struggle with a mental health and/or addiction problem – need “treatment and psychological help,” explains Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association. “They don’t need a corrections officer,” he adds.

We’re dealing with individuals with complex behavioral issues, and it’s going to take a village to change the status quo. We must improve care and understanding for kids before they turn to a life of violence. The attitudes they learn now will likely last a lifetime, and it’s our job to listen, understand, and help. We must train teachers to better reach their students and intervene early. Throwing kids out of school, calling the police—it’s simply not working. Why? Because we don’t know what that class bully has been through. We don’t know his or her history of trauma or abuse. We don’t know what baggage that kid is carrying around to make him or her act this way.  So instead of playing the “blame game” and passing the problem along to the jails, we need to get these kids into treatment so they can address the root cause of their behaviors and begin to heal.

Instead of finger-pointing and trying to assign blame, all of us in criminal justice, education, treatment, and government must make a collective commitment to work together. State agencies like OASAS and OMH are doing good work but there are still cracks in the service continuum, and kids are falling through them. We must provide services that will make a difference—from prevention to job skills training to training our professionals in how to understand criminal thinking and gang culture. For many Phoenix House teen clients and Rikers inmates alike, gang culture was their only family; it was where they turned for protection, support, and community. That’s not easy to walk away from—so it’s up to us to provide them with a better alternative.

By Howard Meitiner
President and CEO, Phoenix House

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