10/26/2012 03:50 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Shutting Down the School to Prison Pipeline

"School is just a waiting room to prison." ~ African-American teenager, Washington, D.C.

If you sit in juvenile delinquency court long enough, you notice a few things. Most of the kids are black or brown. Almost all of the families are poor. And a huge percentage of the children have problems in school - learning difficulties, mental health needs, behavioral issues, or all three.

After eight years of representing children in the juvenile courts of North Carolina, I've spent a lot of time wondering why. As a parent myself, I know that it's not because only poor kids of color behave in ways that violate criminal statutes. Heck -- my daughters regularly yell at and fight with each other, but do these acts get charged as threats and assaults? No, the police are never called, and if we need professional assistance -- therapy, treatment, or a change in schools -- we have the means to arrange for it privately.

The reality is that the school-to-prison pipeline rarely impacts the middle and upper classes. The pattern whereby students commit a minor act at school, are summarily arrested, charged criminally, and then prosecuted in juvenile delinquency court almost exclusively affects poor families, most of whom are minorities.

This past week saw a clear illustration of this when the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Mississippi, the county of Lauderdale, the town of Meridian, and the judges of the Lauderdale County Youth Court.

The allegation? That the defendants help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline in which children are systematically jailed by the local police for committing minor offenses, including dress code violations, and disproportionately punished without due process.

The students most affected? African-American children and children with disabilities, whether physical, psychological, or developmental. While Meridian's general population is approximately 62 percent black and 36 percent white, student enrollment in its public schools is 86 percent black and 12 percent white. Approximately 13 percent of Meridian's students have disabilities, and its students are suspended or expelled at a rate almost seven times the rate of Mississippi schools statewide.

How could this happen? During an eight-month investigation, DOJ found that the Meridian Police Department automatically arrests all children referred to them by the Meridian Public School District, regardless of the severity -- or lack thereof -- of the alleged offense or probation violation. The police don't assess the facts or circumstances of the allegations or whether the claimed conduct actually qualifies as an arrestable offense. Instead, they serve as a taxi service from the schools to the juvenile detention center, routinely handcuffing and arresting students without custody orders or an independent determination of probable cause. Once the student reaches the detention center, an intake officer issues a temporary custody order. Children regularly wait more than 48 hours for a probable cause hearing, after which a Lauderdale County Youth Court judge issues a detention order.

In direct violation of their constitutional rights, children in Meridian often make admissions to formal charges without being advised of their Miranda rights and without making an informed waiver of those rights. The county doesn't always appoint an attorney, and when one is assigned, the lawyer doesn't consistently provide juveniles with meaningful or effective representation, whether for hearings addressing detention, adjudication, or disposition.

DOJ issued findings on August 10, 2012, concluding that the defendants had violated laws prohibiting a pattern or practice of deprivation of civil rights in the administration of juvenile justice. The department sought to negotiate with the involved agencies, hopeful that a collaborative approach to resolving the violations would be productive. On October 24, 2012, DOJ filed suit after determining that a settlement could not be reached.

What does all this mean for the rest of us? Unfortunately the situation in Meridian, Mississippi, is not an anomaly. While the evidence is indeed shocking, the fact is that the school-to-prison pipeline exists in many -- too many -- of our nation's school districts. More stunning, perhaps, is the federal government's explicit acknowledgement that the phenomenon exists, that the pattern of conduct is unconstitutional, and that it must end.

The Meridian case also differs from incidents such as the "kids for cash" scandal uncovered several years ago in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, in which juvenile court judges were driven by greed to illegally sentence thousands of children to private detention centers in a racketeering scheme that netted them millions. In contrast, the personnel and officials in Meridian are unfairly treating children out of systemic disregard for their welfare. Meridian police may subjectively believe they are appropriately following established policy, but they have diverted their attention from the larger -- and graver -- picture.

In other words, these violations stem from detachment and impassivity, from a failure to consider each child as an individual. The teachers, administrators, police and judges of Meridian view these young people as indistinguishable from one another, defined by their alleged infractions, and assumed to be guilty and deserving of incarceration.

As a result, thousands of children -- mostly African-American, many of whom are disabled -- have unnecessarily been arrested, handcuffed, adjudicated as juvenile delinquents, and placed in cages. They have been stigmatized by an insidious cycle of incarceration. They have been socialized to believe they are not worth any more than the next name on the juvenile court docket.

Yes, the serious and longstanding violations uncovered in Mississippi are unacceptable and should be condemned. But they are not limited to a single county in the South. The school-to-prison pipeline exists in cities, suburbs and towns all across the United States.

It is not only there. It is here.

Professor Birckhead's commentary is also posted at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.