With a new school year upon is us it's appropriate to take a closer look at the troubling and complicated relationship between our nation’s public schools and its criminal justice system.
Growing up in an economically challenged neighborhood in Detroit, it still pains me to remember the sheer number of kids, disproportionately African-American boys, who passed through the juvenile detention system and would later go on to either spend time in prison or who are still in prison now. America’s criminal justice system was omnipresent.
The sad fact is that not much has changed. It’s actually gotten a whole lot worse. America represents less than 5 percent of the world’s population but we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Since the 1970s our prisons have grown by 700 percent. This growth has been most explosive and disproportionate among people of color. Looking at males over the age of 18, 1 out of every 15 African-American men and 1 in 36 Hispanic men in the United States are currently incarcerated. Meanwhile, only 1 in every 106 of white males over 18 are behind bars.
It’s tough to ignore the glaring racial disparities at the center of America’s prison industrial complex. As an African-American woman, Christian, and mother, it breaks my heart and, at times, even tests the limits of my faith. But I also believe in a faith that can move mountains. When it comes to our nation’s criminal justice system, we’ve got mountains to move.
When I think about what made the difference between those of us who didn’t have encounters with criminal justice system versus those who did, a few things come to mind. Involved parents and families. Robust community supports. Loving mentors, role-models, and champions who helped point us down the right path and encouraged us along the way.
One factor, however, rises to the top: Access to a high quality education. The public schools in the neighborhood I grew up in were not that great. Way too many of my peers fell through the cracks. Half dropped out before graduation and those who did graduate had the equivalent of an 8th grade education when compared with kids in higher performing public schools. Fewer than 10 percent of my peers would go on to graduate from college.
Sadly, these statistics are reflective of our nation’s public education system as a whole, where millions of God’s children are languishing in a state of academic neglect that falls far short of our best values as Americans and Christians. It’s a tale of two public education systems, where the zip code a child is born into too often determines their academic destiny and undermines their ability to discover and live out their God-given purpose.
Moreover, a high school dropout is eight times more likely to interact with the prison system, juvenile detention, or probation. Looking to make a dent in America's cradle-to-prison pipeline? Perhaps we should start by moving our children from kindergarten to graduation.
The good news is that all across America, there are signs of a changing tide. We’re seeing congregations working alongside communities, wrapping around families, and pursuing restorative justice. As Christians who understand the divine character of grace, we have to become people of second chances. While I understand the impulse towards zero-tolerance policies, this approach is especially problematic for kids of color; it has a direct impact on these kids getting involved with the prison system later in life.
There’s an example of a church here in Washington, D.C., that has opened their doors and set up education, counseling, and a safe space for any child that has been suspended from school. Instead of spending a week at home, or worse, getting into even more trouble out on the streets, this church welcomes them with open arms. Rather than doubling down on shame and punishment, the congregation views these suspensions as teachable moments, asking, "What can we do for kids who we know have the strong potential to get caught up in a system that’s going to have terrible, life-altering consequences?"
There are more than 300,000 churches across the United States and 40,000 high-poverty public schools. That's a ratio 7 to 1. How amazing would it be if every church in America was proactively involved in wrapping around the kids in these struggling schools and advocating for polices that will ensure more of our kids get through high school, receive a quality education, have expanded options in life, and discover their God-given purpose?
We might just see some mountains start to move.
Nicole Baker Fulgham is president and founder of The Expectations Project.
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