Bryan Stevenson at TED 2012: Full Spectrum

Capitol Hill Roundtable: Interrupt the ‘Poverty-to-Prison Pipeline’

Bryan Stevenson at TED 2012: Full Spectrum
In a 2012 file photo, Bryan Stevenson speaks to the audience at TED2012: Full Spectrum, in Long Beach, Calif., about racial justice.

WASHINGTON — You’ve heard about the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Now, add to that the “cradle-to-prison pipeline,” the “poverty-to-prison pipeline” and the “prison-to-poverty pipeline.”

Whatever you call the phenomenon, “it’s a pipeline you don’t want a child to be going down,” Roy Austin Jr., an aide to President Barack Obama, said last week at a Capitol Hill roundtable on anti-poverty strategies and juvenile justice reform.

“The solutions require some courage. They require courage around this country to not just take the simple solution or the easy solution and lock kids up,” said Austin, deputy assistant to the president for urban affairs, justice and opportunity.

Like others at the two-hour event, Austin noted minorities are much more likely to be drawn into the vortex of the justice system than whites: Black males, he said, are six times more likely to be in prison than white males; Latino males, 2 ½ times more likely. And 50 percent of black males will be arrested by the time they are 23 years old.

Austin joined three others on a roundtable panel: acclaimed public interest attorney Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Ala.; Nate Balis, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation; and Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, Calif., a city of 100,000 just outside Los Angeles.

Before the panelists spoke, five members of Congress, including Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House Minority Whip, delivered comments on the connection between poverty and juvenile justice system involvement, as did Assistant U.S. Attorney General Karol V. Mason

Mason, assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, underscored the importance of education and harshly criticized schools’ “zero-tolerance” policies that fuel the school-to-prison pipeline and result in a disproportionate number of minorities being suspended or expelled.

“We have to wonder why when our children are in school they are often hustled out the door for minor infractions and ordinary behavior,” Mason said.

“We’ve already established that education is the key, and what are we doing? We’re kicking our kids out of school instead of helping them stay in school and get the education that they need. And the result is simply that they’re missing the opportunity to learn and grow, which is bad enough. In many instances, they are being put on a path that leads them directly to arrest and confinement.”

About 125 invited guests — including congressional staffers, federal agency representatives and  advocates from nonprofit groups — attended the event, sponsored by the Casey Foundation and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and held at the Rayburn House Office Building.

‘An Urgent National Crisis’

“Today’s topic is certainly an urgent national crisis at the intersection of poverty and race, especially for black boys, who have a one in three lifetime risk of going to jail, and Latino boys, who have a one in six lifetime risk of going to jail,” said U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, an Ohio Democrat serving in her first term in Congress.

“Tens of thousands of children and teens are sucked into the pipeline each year, it’s reported by the Children’s Defense Fund,” she said.

Beatty — co-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Task Force on Poverty and the Economy — pointed to widespread de facto segregated education, concentrations of poverty and longstanding stereotypes and pointed out that children of color often suffer harsher punishment than whites for the same conduct.

Still, she said, Tuesday’s event was “about seeds of hope, and that’s why we are here.”

For his part, Hoyer noted this year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” and said, “One of the challenges we find ... is the relationship between poverty and juvenile incarceration.”

Hoyer took aim at efforts by House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to shift more control of antipoverty programs from the federal government to the states.

“There are too many people in the Congress of the United States who are preaching disinvestment in our people and in our country,” Hoyer said. “The key is not only to attack poverty, but to prevent it.”

Hoyer quoted Frederick Douglass, the former Maryland slave who became an abolitionist and journalist, who said, “It is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.”

Lawmakers, Hoyer said, should “make sure that we build strong children, not spend our money to repair broken men and women.”

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the CBC Task Force on Poverty and the Economy, called “high-quality public school education” the “key pathway out of poverty for children.”

“But that access certainly isn’t available to many of our kids when many of them are being systematically removed from classrooms at the earliest ages,” Lee said.

Lee cited “startling” statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, which in March released a survey of civil rights data showing that despite comprising only 18 percent of preschool children, African-Americans represented 42 percent of preschoolers suspended and nearly half of those suspended more than once.

“That’s preschool. That’s 4- and 5-year-old kids. That’s unacceptable,” Lee said, adding that it potentially puts even some of the youngest of children on track for the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

She praised summer youth programs and Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative.

“It’s important that the [CBC Foundation] continue to talk about this nexus between poverty and criminal justice and pathways out of poverty so our kids can have a pathway into living the life that they so deserve,” Lee said.

That’s particularly critical for minorities, said Austin, the Obama aide on the four-member roundtable panel, citing statistics showing black, Latino and Native American children are six to nine times more likely to live in concentrated poverty than white children.

Half of Black Males Will Be Arrested by Age 23

Austin delivered other sobering statistics: Black males are six times more likely to be in prison than white males; Latino males, 2 ½ times more likely. And 50 percent of black males will be arrested by the time they are 23 years old.

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Learn more about juvenile justice issues and reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubLearn more about juvenile justice issues and reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.


Fellow panelist Stevenson said, “One of the great challenges that children of color in this country face is that they are born with a presumption of guilt. It follows them wherever they go.”

It can haunt adults too. Stevenson, who is African-American, recalled sitting at the defendant’s table not long ago in a Midwestern courtroom, awaiting his client.

“The judge saw me sitting at the defendant’s table and got angry at me,” Stevenson recounted. “He said, ‘Hey, hey, hey, get back out there in the hall! I don’t want any defendants in my courtrooms until their lawyers arrive.”

Stevenson stressed the importance of teaching youngsters about the horrors of slavery and the hard-fought victories of the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, he said: “So we start talking about rights, we go to the United States Supreme Court because that’s an institution that understands that you’ve either got to win or lose. ... We want to create an absolute ban on putting a child in an adult jail or prison. We want to create an economic burden on states with high rates of expulsion.

“This sort of combative orientation is necessary. We’ve got to have the orientation that this is a battle.”

Stevenson said his biggest challenge in dealing with children of color “is helping free themselves from this expectation of incarceration.”

“I see that in 12- and 13-year old boys, who, if I have an honest conversations with them, will tell me that they expect to be either dead or in jail or prison by the time they’re 21. And it’s not irrational for these kids to say. They see that happening all around them.”

Casey’s Balis stressed the importance of relying on alternatives to incarceration, saying the foundation’s juvenile justice approach focuses “almost entirely on safely reducing the use of confinement.”

The foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, the most widely replicated juvenile justice reform effort in the country, operates in some 250 jurisdictions in 39 states and the District of Columbia.

Too often, Balis said, youths — even some who are “no risk at all to public safety” — end up in juvenile prisons such as those featured in Nell Bernstein’s new book, “Burning Down the House: The End of  Juvenile Prison,” a scathing indictment of state-run juvenile detention facilities in America. (Bernstein’s book was distributed free at the event.)

Casey’s approach, Balis said, is based “not just on the research that shows how bad incarceration is, but it’s based on the notion that’s connected to all of our work at the Casey Foundation, which is really that kids do best when they’re raised in families, not institutions.”

Echoing others at the event, Balis said inequalities persist: African-American youths are locked up at five times the rate of white youths, with “terrible racial disparities from the front end of the system to the back.”

On the upside, Balis said, juvenile crime has declined dramatically over the past 15 years or so.

And, he said, “We now have a pretty big bandwagon of people who want to talk about de-incarceration, who want to talk about criminal justice reform, who want to talk about juvenile justice reform. And it’s not just from the left; it’s from the right as well.”

Mayor Jawbones with Gang Leaders

Brown, the Compton mayor, said about 10,000 of its 100,000 residents belong to one of more than 30 gangs besieging her city.

“I call them domestic terrorists that we’re allowing to change the quality of life for the remaining law-abiding citizens,” she said.

Brown said she started a city policing task force last year to wage a “war on gang violence” and she has met with gang leaders.

“I sat down with them and I said, ‘You guys have a choice to make: Either you’re going to continue to shoot one another until there’s a last man standing, or you’ll put the guns down and get a vocation or new living or a new way of life,’” she said.

Brown, who along with other mayors met with Obama last week to discuss My Brother’s Keeper and possible solutions to urban woes, has recruited local judges and businesses to help in her efforts to fight gangs. Former gang members have been offered free legal counsel to deal with issues such as expunging their criminal records, and the city formed a non-profit organization to provide vocational training for jobs.

Under Brown’s leadership since she became the city’s youngest mayor ever last year at age 31, Compton has also embarked on youth-development programs focusing on crime prevention, self-esteem, enrichment and efforts to help trauma victims.

“Our kids in urban communities are systematically suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome … in proportions greater than people exiting wars for our country,” she said. “And so there’s a huge need for mental health services in our communities, and we’re providing those services,” including to those who decide to escape the life of gangs.

Brown also has stressed education.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we can call a [school] system public, but there’s a huge difference and disparity in the quality level of education and outcomes that people are able to receive just because of their ZIP code,” Brown said.

“I was given an opportunity to get out of poverty, and I think most children that have had that same opportunity will choose upward mobility instead of the continued status quo.”

Said Brown, whose city’s population is more than 95 percent people of color: “We really need to take a step back and look at children as people. Regardless of your race, regardless of your ethnicity, we’re all part of the human race. And there isn’t a child alive that if you put them into a healthy environment and give them opportunities to thrive that they would not do so.”


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Gary Gately

Gary Gately is an award-winning reporter and editor who has worked for The New York Times, the Baltimore Sun and United Press International.