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Photo book Winner of the 2012 Best News and Documentary Photography Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors.  The nearly 150 images in this book were made over 5 years of visiting more than 1,000 youth confined in more than 200 juvenile detention institutions in 31 states.  
Juvenile In Justice, by Richard Ross
Or passing gas. Or talking back to the teacher.  

If that child is black or disabled.

If that child is attending the public schools in Meridian, Mississippi.

This is what the Justice Department has charged in their lawsuit filed last Wednesday in Mississippi.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit today against the city of Meridian, Miss.; Lauderdale County, Miss.; judges of the Lauderdale County Youth Court; and the state of Mississippi alleging that the defendants systematically violate the due process rights of juveniles.  

The litigation seeks remedies for violations of the Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The complaint alleges that the defendants help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline in which the rights of children in Meridian are repeatedly and routinely violated. As a result, children in Meridian have been systematically incarcerated for allegedly committing minor offenses, including school disciplinary infractions, and are punished disproportionately without due process of law. The students most affected by this system are African-American children and children with disabilities. The practices that regularly violate the rights of children in Meridian include:

•    Children are handcuffed and arrested in school and incarcerated for days at a time without a probable cause hearing, regardless of the severity – or lack thereof – of  the alleged offense or probation violation.
•    Children who are incarcerated prior to adjudication in the Lauderdale County system regularly wait more than 48 hours for a probable cause hearing, in violation of federal constitutional requirements.
•    Children make admissions to formal charges without being advised of their Miranda rights and without making an informed waiver of those rights.
•    Lauderdale County does not consistently afford children meaningful representation by an attorney during the juvenile justice process, including in preparation for and during detention, adjudication and disposition hearings.

This story has been in the news for some time, since the Justice Department made an announcement of its investigative findings, and referred to this situation as part of the school-to-prison pipeline.
Book cover.  The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform
The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal
Reform, by Catherine Y. Kim, Daniel J. Losen
and Damon T. Hewitt
The use of the term school-to-prison pipeline is not new, nor is it a problem restricted to the south. School systems across the U.S., especially in areas with large minority populations, feed that pipeline each week. The book, depicted above by Richard Ross, is a photo essay on juvenile incarceration, and all the photos are available at his blog. An equally important read is The School to Prison Pipeline.
The “school-to-prison pipeline” is an emerging trend that pushes large numbers of at-risk youth—particularly children of color—out of classrooms and into the juvenile justice system. The policies and practices that contribute to this trend can be seen as a pipeline with many entry points, from under-resourced K-12 public schools, to the over-use of zero-tolerance suspensions and expulsions and to the explosion of policing and arrests in public schools. The confluence of these practices threatens to prepare an entire generation of children for a future of incarceration.
Organizations like the Sentencing Project, The ACLU, The Southern Poverty Law Center, The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), along with grassroots local groups of parents, young people and teachers, have been fighting for years to stem the flow of children into jails and prisons, many of them which are now "for-profit."

Meridian, Mississippi, is simply the latest cynosure, and has to now go to court to defend itself against these charges.

I don't live in Meridian. Nor have I ever lived in Mississippi, though I lived in neighboring Louisiana. When I hear "Meridian" it brings up memories of the civil rights workers murdered there in 1964; James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner. Cheney was from Meridian. It took over 40 years to finally get a conviction (for manslaughter) for only one of the murderers. His gravesite has been repeatedly desecrated.  

This history must not be forgotten. Those civil rights workers who went to the south, went there to hook up with local people, like James Cheney, who wanted the right to vote.

Last Sunday I wrote about voter suppression and intimidation efforts by the Republican Party.

Today, I'd like to address how the system has effectively disenfranchised a significant group of our citizens, and how the school-to-prison pipeline plays a key role in ensuring that the voteless will remain poor, unemployed or underemployed and overwhelmingly black, or of color.  

Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions. Felony disenfranchisement is an obstacle to participation in democratic life which is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in 1 of every 13 African Americans unable to vote.
As we near the date of the next elections, almost all of our efforts are focused on protecting and getting out the vote—as they should be.  

But unless we address the insidious affect of our skewed criminal injustice system on those citizens and young people who may never have a right to vote, we are being willfully blind to the long game that is being played—on us.  

(Continue reading below the fold.)

school desks behind bars
Yes, it is truly a long game. Deeply rooted in racist history, especially the time of Reconstruction, when freemen got the right to the franchise.

Tom Freeland, a lawyer in Oxford, Mississippi, has some interesting historical observations on his website about felon disenfranchisement.

The Civil War, blacks comprised the majority of the electorate of Mississippi, since whites who had supported the Confederacy were denied the vote. Virtually all historians agree that this development was greeted by obstructionist whites with alarm. Virtually all historians also agree that disenfranchising tactics and methods, including literacy and property tests, poll taxes, understanding clauses, and grandfather clauses were adopted in hopes of reducing the enthusiasm and lessening the impact of the black vote. Some historians have remarked that disenfranchising provisions in state constitutions for convictions of certain “black” crimes was one additional method explored.

In one of its opinions, the Mississippi Supreme Court itself has taken this view. Six years after the adoption of § 241, the Mississippi Supreme Court reviewed the new law and remarked that blacks were more likely than whites to be “convicted of bribery, burglary, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretenses, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy.” Ratliff v. Beale, 74 Miss. 247, 256–66, 20 So. 865, 868 (1896). The Mississippi Supreme Court offered its insights into the intent of the drafters of the 1890 Constitution:

    [t]he convention swept the circle of expedients to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race. By reason of its previous condition of servitude and dependence, this race had acquired or accentuated certain particularities of habit, of temperament and of character, which clearly distinguished it, as a race, from that of the whites—a patient, docile people, but careless, landless, and migratory within narrow limits, without forethought, and its criminal members given rather to furtive offenses than to the robust crimes of the whites. Restrained by the federal constitution from discriminating against the negro race, the convention discriminated against its characteristics and the offenses to which its weaker members were prone…. Burglary, theft, arson, and obtaining money under false pretenses were declared to be disqualifications, while robbery and murder, and other crimes in which violence was the principal ingredient, were not.

I had to go back and read this several times. "White crimes" (robbery, murder and rape) described as "robust" were not reason enough to disenfranchise, but "negro" crimes were written into law.

Fast forward to the school system in Meridian. The Justice Department's letter of findings states:

The students most severely affected by these practices are black children and children with disabilities in Meridian. While the City of Meridian’s overall population is approximately 62% black, 36% white, 2% Hispanic, and 1% Asian, the District has a student enrollment that is approximately 86% black, 12% white, 1% Hispanic, and 1% Asian. Approximately 13% of District students have been identified as eligible for an Individualized Education Program under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Students in the District are expelled and suspended for longer than ten days at a rate almost seven times the rate for Mississippi schools generally.
I was curious about several details that weren't mentioned in any of the many news stories I've read on this specific issue. It seems local officials have not yet responded to these charges officially. So who are they? And the other question is why is the public school enrollment in Meridian only 12 percent white, when the Lauderdale County school district is majority white?

I figured I would start with the mayor of Meridian. The current mayor is Cheri Barry (R). It seems she was a graduate of a local private school, Lamar, which had its tax exempt status denied in 1971, due to a Supreme Court ruling against private all-white schools in Mississippi. I visited the school website. Though they have made sure to display a few dashes of color in their photos of students, it is clear from data they provide that it priced beyond the means of most citizens.

Mission Statement
Lamar School's mission is to educate each individual by providing a challenging and purposeful college preparatory curriculum in a safe, respectful, Christian environment.
Lamar presently serves approximately 500 students in grades pre-K through 12. The average student to teacher ratio is 15:1.
According to their website costs per year: Pre-K $4000.00, K – 6 $5616.00, and 7 – 12 $6144.00.

Mayor Barry gives weekly addresses on local issues, which can be viewed on YouTube.
I did not find a video where she discusses this issue, though she does tout the new law enforcement center.

The city of Meridian has recently shuffled the administration of its public school system, and there is now a new superintendent, Alvin Taylor, who claims that the DOJ charges do not apply to his watch, details in Mississippi town struggles with "school-to-prison pipeline" charges.

Examining the schools disciplinary policies, and uniform policies (which includes a "no-head covering" rule) I cannot judge how they compare to other school systems. I do wonder how many of the students from private Lamar find themselves in handcuffs for lateness.

I am using this case against Meridian, simply as an example of a far more complex problem, which involves a long history of de-facto segregation, not just in schools but in housing, as well as the disproportionate incarceration of a large sector of our population who are Black, Latino and Native American.

Ultimately, for me, it adds up to imbalances of power. Who has it, and who doesn't, or won't unless they have the fundamental power to vote. We are creating an entire generation of young people who will become future non-voters. Much has been written here about the deleterious effects of "the war on drugs" on swelling the incarcerated population in the U.S. to topping the world charts, but sending kids into the pipeline for non-drug related school infractions tends to get overlooked.  

Guess which party benefits?

Take action by supporting juvenile justice reforms.

See what the laws are in your state (related to felonies and misdemeanors).

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Oct 28, 2012 at 03:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges, Black Kos community, and American Legislative Transparency Project.

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