What Will a Science-hostile President Mean for Justice Reform?

billkellyThis column was written for The Crime Report.

Concern about how the next administration will deal with criminal justice reform is well-justified. But possibly the most troubling clue to the policies of a Trump administration is contained in the attitudes of the president-elect to science.

Donald Trump does not appear to have much regard for scientific evidence. He believes, for example, that climate change is a hoax.

If he applies that know-nothing mindset to the evidence-based practices that have begun to inform new thinking about incarceration and sentencing policies, reformers are going to be in for a bumpy ride.

So far, we have been given bits and pieces of Trump’s positions, but little in terms of explicit policy statements. And what we do know of his thinking is rife with contradictions.

Trump branded himself as the “law and order” candidate during the GOP convention last summer. Earlier, in a November 2015 interview on MSNBC, he called himself “a believer in tough on crime,” and compared urban neighborhoods afflicted with violence to “the Wild West.”

He criticized the Obama administration’s decision to approve the early release of approximately 600 low-level drug offenders from federal prison. Not letting the facts get in his way, Trump declared that “Obama is even releasing violent criminals from the jails, including drug dealers, and those with gun crimes. And they’re being let go by the thousands. By the thousands. …”

And he went further: “Obama pushed for changes to sentencing laws that released thousands of dangerous, drug-trafficking felons and gang members who prey on civilians.”

Commentators have pointed out that Trump has changed many of his beliefs over the course of the campaign. While he once appeared to defend a woman’s right to choose, he has since become a staunch pro-lifer. But his “tough on crime” beliefs have been largely unchanged.

His 2000 book “The America We Deserve” rejected arguments made by social scientists and criminologists that suggested strong links between criminal offending and poverty or childhood maltreatment, insisting that such explanations are “soft on crime.”

As his campaign ratcheted up this fall, he strengthened the point.

“Tough on crime policies are the most important form of national defense,” he has claimed. ”Aggressive anticrime policies are the best social program.”

Advocates of reducing America’s overcrowded prisons are, similarly, unlikely to get a warm reception in the Trump White House or Justice Department. Trump is an avid advocate of imprisonment, apparently showing no concern for current levels of incarceration and a clear disdain for the recent, ever-so-modest reform efforts made at the state level.

Moreover, legislation supported by a bipartisan coalition that proposed modest changes to federal sentencing has been languishing in Congress for over two years. One of its most vocal opponents has been Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions — a key Trump ally who has been touted as a possible cabinet member.

It’s probably safe to conclude that the prospects of such legislation being resurrected under President Trump are bleak.

Most of the criminologists and policymakers who have examined the current research in criminal justice policy are aware that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports reducing punitive policies, and of implementing comprehensive, evidence-based clinical intervention and rehabilitation programs.

But this growing intellectual consensus is not likely to persuade a Trump administration committed to the law-and-order, tough-on-crime rhetoric that excited crowds during the recent campaign.

The early speculation is that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is Trump’s first choice for attorney general. Giuliani remains one of the foremost defenders of the stop-and-frisk policing strategies which he instituted in New York — and which have since come under both legal and scholarly attack.

Trump, a native New Yorker who often refers to the city’s high-crime era of the 1990s, has long been a Giuliani fan. While his justice views have undoubtedly been influenced by the ex-mayor, he also appears willing to go even further in denying the validity of scientific research — or even evidence.

He argues for instance that the so-called Central Park Five — five young men imprisoned for a notorious attack on a jogger and eventually released when DNA evidence proved their innocence — are guilty. The fact that someone else actually confessed to the crime appears to have eluded him.

Evidence-based strategies are already influencing policies at the state level. There have been some state- level rollbacks of tough-on-crime policies, especially in terms of sentencing laws and prison populations. Fiscal pressures may keep some states headed in that direction; but to reiterate, this is very modest change.

The bigger challenge of criminal justice reform is much more extensive and comprehensive than what has transpired or been considered to date. For example, the recidivism rate of mentally ill prisoners is 80 percent. That screams revolving-door and should serve as a clue about diverting to clinical treatment many of the 40 percent of prison inmates with mental health issues.

So, too, for the vast majority who have a substance-use disorder, as well as those with neurocognitive and intellectual impairment and deficits.

But such evidence-based strategies may come to a dead stop in a Trump administration.

While much of criminal justice policymaking is local, the federal government has a huge impact on setting priorities through its funding power.

I fear a federal tough-on-crime agenda will increase the political risk associated with current reform efforts, in turn keeping any surviving reform efforts piecemeal and modest. And when it comes to extensive, comprehensive criminal justice reform, the prospects are even bleaker.

Reform requires effective leadership. From the evidence available to us so far, that’s not likely to come from a science-hostile Trump White House.

William R. Kelly is a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of three recent books on criminal justice reform, Criminal Justice at the Crossroads: Transforming Crime and Punishment, The Future of Crime and Punishment: Smart Policies for Reducing Crime and Saving Money and From Retribution to Public Safety: Disruptive Innovation of American Criminal Justice.

This column originally appeared in The Crime Report.

STEMester Helps Kids Learn Leadership and Service

STEMester of Service Grants support middle school teachers in engaging kids in a semester of service. This grant helps kids build a framework for service learning, addressing critical environmental and disaster preparedness needs, and connecting them to science, technology, engineering and math. This is to help increase the students' academic achievement. The STEM Schools must be located in one of the 19 states with the highest dropout rate, including Georgia, Washington, Colorado, California, Washington D.C., and many others. The grant is for$5,000 and helps cover a field trip to Pennsylvania. The deadline for this is August 8, 2011.


Grant Improves Education for Kids

Rockwell Collins Community Sponsorship Fund supports fundraising events and sponsorship opportunities. Rockwell Collins, an aerospace company, believes that strengthening the quality of education and providing opportunities for kids help give them the opportunity for a better future. The grant focuses its efforts on those that put an emphasis in math, science, engineering and technology as well as culture and the arts. The deadline for this grant is September 1, 2011.


Grant To Study Drug Interactions with Neurons

The Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, and components of participating National Institute on Drug Abuse are sponsoring the Science Drug Abuse Partnership Award. The goal is to enhance understanding of how the mechanisms of a neuron interact or react to drug abuse and addiction among K-12 students. This is an educational grant that aims for its intended audience to learn the scientific reasoning behind what happens when someone uses drugs. This is to help garner understanding of drug abuse to help prevent it. The deadline for this grant is May 25, 2012.

JJIE has written extensively regarding kids and brain development. Check out this story Conference Explores Adolescent Brain Development.

The Best of B.E.S.T.

The school year is winding down, but there’s always plenty of work to be done at B.E.S.T. Academy at Benjamin S. Carson. The faculty and staff always have their hands full trying to motivate and inspire students at the all-male Atlanta Public School. Ninth is currently the highest grade, but the ultimate goal is to expand through 12th by 2013.

B.E.S.T. is an acronym standing for Business, Engineering, Science and Technology, which is the focus of the curriculum at the sprawling $30 million school named in honor of Carson, a renowned African-American neurosurgeon. Students are immersed in a rigorous academic curriculum, which includes language arts, social studies, reading, math and science.

B.E.S.T. was initiated by Atlanta Public Schools based on the research of New York Times bestselling author, business consultant and social philosopher Michael Gurian, who asserts that girls and boys have different learning styles. As a result, B.E.S.T teachers employ teaching strategies that are geared toward the general learning styles of boys.

School leaders admit there are plenty of obstacles. The fact that more than 90 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch speaks to the economic challenges in the surrounding community, but there is also plenty of evidence of progress. In the 2009-2010 school year, the school met its Annual Yearly Progress projections and for the first time it was removed from the school system’s “needs improvement list.”

Here’s a behind the scenes look at the school during our visit.

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Drug Use, Addiction and Science

The Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) are sponsoring the Science Education Drug Abuse Partnership Award. This grant seeks to find new programs and materials to understand how drug abuse and addiction really impact kids; what it does to the neurons of their brains and how kids behave on a daily basis.  This grant will focus on drugs or drug topics that are not well addressed in existing efforts by the educational community or media.

B.E.S.T. Men: Atlanta’s All-Male Academy Seeks To Close Achievement Gap

From the moment they greet us with broad smiles and outstretched hands it is clear that Jabari Booker and Mykael Riley – our tour guides for the morning – take their duties very seriously. The seventh graders enthusiastically embrace principal LaPaul Shelton’s request to show us around their school.

Seventh graders Jabari Booker and Mykael Riley.

One thing is immediately apparent: Neither of these 12-year-olds, with their closely-cropped hair and spectacles perched on their noses fit the stereotypical images of young black males that often pervade in mainstream media and popular culture. Both are thriving academically, have never had any run-ins with the law and have great relationships with their fathers. Many of their classmates at B.E.S.T. Academy, a single-gender Atlanta Public School with a student body comprised entirely of black boys, aren’t so fortunate.

“Some students have emotional issues based on their past and the fact that they don’t know their father,” says Mykael. “In some cases they never knew him or their father may have died or was killed. Here there are a lot of male teachers who can relate to them like a father; they’re basically like a father who cares for his children and wants them to be great.”

Jabari agrees.

The plethora of African-American male teachers on the faculty help serve as positive male role models for students.

“A lot of the kids here don’t have access to positive male role models, but the teachers here care about us and want to help show us how to be men,” he says. “Some of the kids around here act up, but the teachers really care. A teacher isn’t just going to say that you failed a test; they want to help you succeed. This is a place where you can ask for help.”

The demographics of the northwest Atlanta community off Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway (formerly known as Bankhead Highway) where the school is located, provide a snapshot of what administrators are up against daily. More than 90 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. According to research by the American Physical Society, of nearly 29,000 residents in the nearby area:

  • 41 percent have less than a high school education
  • 10 percent are unemployed
  • 51 percent are not part of the labor force
  • 51 percent of children are being raised by grandparents.

The data is daunting, but administrators say they’re up for the challenge.

LaPaul Shelton is in his second school year as principal.

“We try to create an environment where it’s not all about pointing a finger at them, because a lot of the problems these young men face have to do with the neighborhood and environment that they are living in,” says Shelton of the economically challenged community often referenced in rap songs. “They live in a place where it’s okay to wear your pants sagging and to handle things in a violent way. We’re trying to change those behaviors; we’re trying to change a mindset.”

Although administrators agree that the past few years have had its shares of challenges, there is concrete evidence that Shelton’s approach is working. In the 2009-2010 school year, the school met its Annual Yearly Progress projections and for the first time it was removed from the school system’s “needs improvement list.”

“We’re working to build upon that success; it’s a daily practice,” says Shelton, now in his second term as principal.

Teacher Alva Hartry says changing negative behaviors is mostly achieved through providing students with critical support and positive reinforcement.

Classroom instruction is supplemented by an array of extracurricular activities including chorus, band, orchestra, art, computer technology, football, basketball, debate, robotics and baseball.

“This is probably one of the few places where our young African-American males are being recognized for their achievements,” she says. “We always tell the students, ‘you need to be supportive of each other.’”

Mykael and Jabari’s pride in their school is apparent as they stroll the halls. They grin and giggle as they share the specs of the sprawling $30 million facility and rattle off details about the different personalities of the teachers. Not so surprisingly, school lunch gets a thumbs down as merely “edible” and although they embrace the all-male environment they agree that having female classmates would be a lot more fun. They both concur that B.E.S.T. is, well, the best place for them to learn and prepare for prosperous futures.

Inspirational quotes such as “part of success is preparation on purpose” and “if there is no struggle there is no progress” line the walls, serving as subliminal reminders of the school’s mission “to prepare our students to enter into a four-year institution of higher learning as they transform into the B.E.S.T. Men.” Pennants posted around bearing the names of universities like Brown, Princeton, Georgia-Tech and Clark Atlanta University highlight the college preparatory curriculum.

B.E.S.T. Academy at Benjamin S. Carson, named in honor of the renowned African-American neurosurgeon, opened in a temporary building in August of 2007. It moved to the new facility in the summer of 2009. B.E.S.T. is an acronym for Business, Engineering, Science, and Technology, which is the focus of the curriculum. The school began with sixth grade and a grade has been added every year since. Ninth is currently the highest grade, but the ultimate goal is to expand to 12th by 2013.

B.E.S.T. was initiated by Atlanta Public Schools based on the research of New York Times bestselling author, business consultant and social philosopher Michael Gurian, who asserts that girls and boys have different learning styles. To this effect, teachers at B.E.S.T. employ teaching strategies that are geared toward the general learning styles of boys. The students are immersed in a rigorous academic curriculum, which includes language arts, social studies, reading, math and science. Classroom instruction is supplemented by an array of extracurricular activities including chorus, band, orchestra, art, computer technology, foreign languages, football, basketball, track and field, debate, robotics and baseball.

B.E.S.T. is located in northwest Atlanta off Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, formerly known as Bankhead Highway.

Being single gender is not exclusively what makes B.E.S.T. Academy unique. The prevalence of male teachers makes it a standout too – clearly a direct response to the critical need for male role models for a student body that overwhelmingly hails from single-parent households.

“The female teachers will sometimes baby some of the students, but the male teachers are hard on us sometimes,” says Jabari. “They know that we need more male role models and they’re tough in order to let us know that acting up is not right.”

The school operates in partnership with the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, Morehouse College, the Atlanta Falcons and other community organizations featuring prominent and professionally successful African-American men. Emory University, along with non-profits such as the Be Proactive Foundation, Pro Active Management, Greening Youth Foundation and Visions Unlimited, are also among the academy’s community  partners.

Teachers are charged with closing the massive achievement gap that exists nationwide and in metro Atlanta among young black males. Many teachers stay late weekdays working one-on-one with students, there are regular Wednesday tutorial sessions and Saturday morning school takes place twice monthly. The ultimate objective, administrators say, is to cultivate the academic, social and emotional growth of each student.

B.E.S.T. was initiated by Atlanta Public Schools based on the gender-based education research of author, business consultant and social philosopher Michael Gurian.

“The changes that we seek to make require time and energy,” says Shelton, a husband and father of a young daughter and son. “It’s about building a relationship with these boys; that relationship does not end at 4 p.m. Fortunately we have an amazingly supportive and committed staff.”

The school also aims to address the wide array of student needs, including providing a monthly awards ceremony to highlight student achievement and providing weekly counseling sessions for students dealing with emotional challenges. Special classes, including one called “Poems Over Pistols” led by former Atlanta radio personality Fernando "Pezo" Johnson and Capitol Records executive Ric Ross, encourage students to share their personal experiences through writing poetry and raps.

“The best thing about B.E.S.T. is the leadership at the school,” says Home-School Parent Liaison Tanya Culbreth. “We try to do things here that are out of the box. We provide mental health support and our Meeting of the Minds awards ceremony doesn’t just recognize the accomplishments of the top five percent of students. We award them all for meeting goals and we try to give everyone a fair opportunity to lead and take ownership in the school.”

Jabari says the specialized environment makes a major difference.

Students Jabari and Mykael say the male teachers are often tough on them in an effort to help them learn and grow into successful men.

“My other school had students that are the same race as me and some from different countries like China, Japan and African countries, but this environment has more to do with me [as a young black male],” he notes. “I’m able to connect with the students here better. We have a lot more in common; we have a lot of the same issues and problems.”

Shelton says he aspires for 2011 to be another stellar year for B.E.S.T.

“We’ll just take it day by day try to reach as many young men as we can.”


Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.