You probably read Eric Mayes’ story in Tuesday’s edition of the Tribune about Philadelphia City Council’s consideration of a plan to expand youth court, an interesting system of intervention in the effort to curb juvenile crime.
The way it works is pretty simple: Courts are set up in public schools, where nonviolent and misdemeanor offenders are tried and sentenced to community service or other punishment. Now, before you get up in arms and start marching on the school district, you should consider the twist — the part that makes the idea so interesting.
Other students would staff the youth courts — truly a trial by a jury of one’s peers. They’ll act as judge, jury, prosecutor and defense — and mete out punishment as they see fit, in keeping with their own standards of behavior.
“This is another step to divert the pipeline from schools to prison,” said Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who along with Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez urged Council to take action on youth courts.
The contrast to those youth courts was blasted all over the news the next day, as CNN reported that federal civil rights lawyers filed suit against the city of Meridian, Miss., for operating what the government called a school-to-prison pipeline, echoing Councilman Jones.
Students guilty of even the most minor infractions in Meridian schools were denied basic constitutional rights, sent to court (real court, not a peer-run youth court), and incarcerated, sometimes for days, and often without even parent notification.
Children in Meridian schools who talked back to teachers, violated the school’s dress code, or disrupted classes were handcuffed, arrested in school and incarcerated — often for days at a time — without a probable cause hearing. Without so much as a Miranda warning, they were charged formally, made to admit to those charges, and sentenced to real incarceration or disciplinary school — all without being represented by a lawyer, or even their parents.
It almost goes without saying here that around 86 percent of the Meridian students are African-American, and every single student referred to the court for violations were minorities, according to the government suit.
Outrageous? You bet, but get this — there are others. The government is preparing similar suits against other districts, particularly those, like Meridian, that fail to cooperate with investigators.
The school-to-prison pipeline is real, folks, and it’s swallowing up young Black men like fish in a net.
How could this happen? Two words: for profit.
The for-profit prison industry, raking in billions of dollars and growing every year, needs a fresh, steady supply of its core commodity: inmates. Hundreds of thousands of young Black men are turned over to corporate jailers who make a tidy sum on everything from prisoners’ clothing to health care to food. They keep expenses down, they keep profits up, and they keep slamming the door on our kids’ futures.
State legislators love it because the for-profit prison industry saves the state money over housing the prisoners themselves, and then those legislators get to go back to their constituents and brag about how they’re saving the taxpayers’ money while being tough on crime — a winning campaign strategy for just about any politician.
It also helps that the companies who run those facilities gladly pour millions into lobbying those same legislators to pass bills favorable to the industry — that is, longer sentences for more crimes, three-strike laws, and draconian drug possession sentencing mandates.
In fact, contained in the annual report of The GEO Group, the second-largest for-profit prison corporation in the country (Corrections Corporation of America is number one) posting an annual profit of $1.27 billion, is this little nugget:
“The demand for our correctional and detention facilities and services could be adversely affected by changes in existing criminal or immigration laws, crime rates in jurisdictions in which we operate, the relaxation of criminal or immigration enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction, sentencing or deportation practices, and the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by criminal laws or the loosening of immigration laws.”
By their own admission, these companies’ have to keep as many people as possible behind bars, so they have a vested interest in shaping state laws, particularly drug possession and immigration laws. And who’s going to prison for those drug possession or immigration violations? Black and Brown people, that’s who.
And the earlier they can get them, the longer they get to keep them. So in a twisted way, stories like Meridian, Miss., are just another chapter in the saga of American business, like slavery and indentured servitude.
If Philly’s youth court proposal takes even one kid away from these profiteers of human misery, it’s well worth the effort.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.