As the Chairman of the Assembly Committee on Public Safety and the Select Committee on The Status of Boys and Men of Color, I have visited many jails and prisons. Regardless of the facility, I always leave with the belief that we can and should do more to change the path that leads these men, women and youth to incarceration.
Currently, we spend $11,000 per year to educate a child, but as a state, we spend over $300,000 to incarcerate each youth offender. In California over 80% of our youth prisoners are African American or Latino.
This statistic demonstrates to me that we must change our investment strategy regarding our children. We clearly are investing our resources in jailing our young children of color, instead of healing and teaching them. A deficient education system and lack of funding have led to overcrowded classrooms, the reduction of after school programs, the elimination of full time school nurses, counselors, psychologists, and a lack of teacher diversity. Add to that, racial biases that exist toward African American and Latino boys. It is clear to me that we have created the prototype for the school to prison pipeline.
Studies by the National Criminal Justice Reference Services show youth can be held accountable without being incarcerated. Incarcerating youth is the most expensive, least effective and most harmful response.
I have spent many hours listening to experts, community leaders, and incarcerated youth with the hope of finding ways to provide resources to prevent our children from entering into the juvenile justice system.
Alternatives to imprisoning our youth are community-based services, diversion programs, individualized treatment, and prevention. Doesn’t it make sense to shift our money from punishment to prevention? I assert we owe our youth more supporting programs in and around schools including early academic support for children with learning differences, youth development programs, emotional and mental health services and community centers. I believe the combination of these supports could disrupt the alarming rates of youth incarceration.
All journeys begin with a first step, that is why I have authored Assembly Bill (AB) 2944, the “Schools Not Prison Voluntary Contribution Fund.” AB 2944 would allow Californians to donate a portion of their tax return which would go toward funding projects that create growing opportunities for disadvantaged youth. Funded projects would advance youth leadership development, community organizing, pupil enrichment, mentorships, and workforce readiness development.
Dismantling the school to prison pipeline is all of our responsibility – and will benefit us all. Today, we are paying $300,000 a year for each missed opportunity to help a child achieve a productive path. Fixing this problem starts with a first step – each of us giving a small amount to fund projects that will lead our young children to emotional well-being, a sense of hope and promise, academic success, and hopefully, job training or college.
Only when we reverse our investment strategy will we also reverse the label “at-risk” youth to “at-promise.” Every child should be promised the support to achieve a productive life. AB 2944 is a step in that direction.