Law and Order

Last week’s episode of Law & Order: SVU, “Born Psychopath,” was tough to watch and sad to think about. “The SVU detectives race against the clock to stop a clinically psychopathic boy with homicidal tendencies.”

Henry is a 10 year old boy who is devoid of any human emotions other than anger and rage. There is not a single loving nor sympathetic bone in his body. He terrorizes and abuses his little sister. He pulls a knife on his mother. He kills a friend’s dog. The show finishes in a hostage situation, where Henry has stolen a gun from his friend’s father, who says his gun is “always locked up and safely stored.”


Early in the show, two of the police officers visit Henry’s school. They learn about the litany of drugs that have been tried, ranging from antidepressants to psychotropic drugs to combinations thereof.

The officers ask the school administrator about Henry’s behavior:

“Some days I think we’ve turned a corner, and then the next day he’ll throw a desk or slam his locker.”

“Has Henry ever hurt any kids here at this school?” asks Ice-T’s character.

“At first, but, he knows now that behavior is unacceptable.”

The next scene shows the police officers and the attorney discussing the case and weighing the evidence so far.

The DA is wary: “If this kid were that troubled, there should be more of a paper trail.”

“If he lived in the projects he’d been in the system ten times by now!” Ice-T exclaims.

Henry comes from an affluent white family. He attends a private school in New York City. With all the troubling topics and scenes from this episode, that one line rang loudest to me. Ice-T’s character is speaking the truth.

If a black or brown child in a public school slammed their locker, threw desks, and hurt other students, they’d have been arrested. According to the NYCLU in 2009, Black and Latino youth were 86% of inmates in New York State’s juvenile detention facilities, but only 35% of the statewide population.

The school to prison pipeline is all too real. Tragically real. Consider just a few of the shocking facts:

-68% of urban high schools now have police (SROs) patrolling their corridors.

-Most teens in the juvenile justice system are there for non-violent crimes, such as truancy and disruptive behavior.

-One out of every three teens who is arrested is arrested in school.

-Two-thirds to three-fourths of teens who are incarcerated in juvenile detention centers withdraw or drop out of high school.


In 2012, Florida led the nation in student arrests. From the Orlando Sentinel:

The vast majority of children being arrested in schools are not committing criminal acts…

Sixty-seven percent of the arrests last year were for misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct — a catchall, attorneys say, that has been used when children refused to take a cellphone out of a pocket or yelled in class. Fewer than 5 percent faced weapons charges.

Most arrests stem from “bad behavior, not criminal behavior.”

…more than 12,000 Florida students arrested nearly 14,000 times last year, records from the Department of Juvenile Justice showed.

An arrest record stays with students for life, even when charges are dropped. That means their response must be “yes” to questions on college and employment applications that ask: “Have you ever been arrested?”

Disabled students accounted for 13 percent of Florida’s public-school students but 29 percent of those arrested last year, state data showed. Black students made up 23 percent of Florida’s school population but 47 percent of the arrests.

Those higher rates are not because of higher rates of misbehavior by black students, but to schools punishing black students more severely for “less serious or more subjective infractions,” according to The Equity Project at Indiana University, which studies the issue.

It is taking place all over the country. Florida. Connecticut. Mississippi. Texas. Colorado. New York. No state is immune to this tragedy, and the racial, social, and economic injustices negatively affect everybody. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

As Michelle Alexander writes in her landmark book The New Jim Crow:

What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.


From the Population Reference Bureau in August 2012:

Since 2002, the United States has had the highest incarceration rate in the world. Although prison populations are increasing in some parts of the world, the natural rate of incarceration for countries comparable to the United States tends to stay around 100 prisoners per 100,000 population. The U.S. rate is 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents, or about 1.6 million prisoners in 2010, according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

Men make up 90 percent of the prison and local jail population, and they have an imprisonment rate 14 times higher than the rate for women. And these men are overwhelmingly young: Incarceration rates are highest for those in their 20s and early 30s. Prisoners also tend to be less educated: The average state prisoner has a 10th grade education, and about 70 percent have not completed high school. Incarceration rates are significantly higher for blacks and Latinos than for whites. In 2010, black men were incarcerated at a rate of 3,074 per 100,000 residents; Latinos were incarcerated at 1,258 per 100,000, and white men were incarcerated at 459 per 100,000.

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, the calls for more police in schools have grown louder. This is misguided. Many schools around the country already have police officers on site. There were cops at Columbine. Rather than preventing massacres, these officers are instead mostly used as enforcers and disciplinarians. What used to get a kid a visit to the principal has turned into a visit to jail. While those calling for more cops in schools are well intentioned, the actual outcomes of more police in schools, coupled with the disturbing trend to militarize our police forces, are a criminalization of school and an even greater demonization of minorities.

The school to prison pipeline is an early step in the broader scheme of the prison industrial complex; Zero Tolerance policies in schools and Three Strikes laws on the books, The Stop and Frisk policy in New York City and the fact that students, their belongings, lockers, cars, etc. can be searched by school officials at any time, The War On Drugs, Private Prisons, etc. The menace of our racist criminal justice system terrorizes minorities in this country, tears apart families, and destroys lives. It must end.

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