Sunday, April 5, 2015

Derailing The School to Prison Express

Following Up on the Obama/Simon Interview
MeanMesa would like to add a few points to the conversation.

Although we may be accustomed to seeing the President when he is addressing the latest  manufactured "Congressional crisis," it turns out that Barack Obama is also a thoughtful, insightful and politically innovative "idea guy" when he is simply speaking about his interest in certain social issues. Because there is a very low possibility for "if it bleeds, it leads" television "red meat journalism" with such occasions, this remarkable interview has received relatively low exposure -- less than it deserves.

If you haven't had a chance to watch it, you can see the whole interview here: VIDEO - Barack Obama Interviews The Wire Creator David Simon About Criminal Justice Reform. The video is courtesy of YOUTUBE with a duration of 13 minutes. [MeanMesa has never seen "The Wire" because Short Current Essays Galactic HeadQuarters can't afford cable. Read more about "The Wire" here - The Wire/WIKI]

If, on the other hand, you think Barack Obama is a "Muslim ISIS spy" or a "deep jungle African cannibal," you should probably stop reading here. MeanMesa applauds the work this remarkably intelligent and effective President often, and this post will offer no exception to that trend.

Barack Obama and David Simon [image - iphone logic]
To introduce a background for this post we can examine a few of the things the President said specifically about incarceration rates, sentencing, recidivism and the enduring social and life disruption occurring for people caught convicted under the existing drug laws. 

This post will introduce an alternative educational "investment plan" which might actually begin to bend the "school to prison" track which feeds the constant stream of young people into the judicial system the President is discussing. First, take a quick look at these excerpts of the transcript of the interview.

[Excerpted. Quotations are attributed to this source. Read an entire transcript of the interview here - SALON]

Obama: And we’ve seen reductions in violent crime in most big cities in America, in some cases precipitously, partly because I think there was an awareness we were so invested in street-level drug transactions we were losing focus on what was really important, which is that people wanted to be safe. On the other hand, what we know is that a consequence of that was this massive trend towards incarceration, even of non-violent drug offenders. And I saw this even during the period that you were reporting and then starting to write for television. I saw this from the perspective of a state legislator, this, just, explosion of incarcerations, disproportionately African American and Latino. And the challenge which you depict in your show is, folks going in at great expense to the state, many times trained to become more hardened criminals while in prison, come out and are basically unemployable. And end up looping back in.

Simon: Permanently a part of the other America, they can’t be pulled back. Nobody incarcerates their population at this level. And to look at it when I came in as a police reporter, the federal prison population was about 34% violent offenders. When I left as a police reporter 13 years later, it was about 7%. So these were less violent people getting longer sentences, of course there was the elimination of parole and good time, all you had was good time, so people were staying in. And you’re absolutely right, they come out completely tarred, they can’t vote, they can’t participate in their communities, they’ve lost track of families, families have been destroyed, communities have been upended. And if it was this draconian and it worked, then maybe we could have a discussion that said what we’re doing is working –

Obama: ‘The trade offs were working.’

Simon: Yeah: ‘It’s terrible and we’re losing a lot of humanity, but hey, it’s working.’ But it doesn’t work. It’s draconian and it doesn’t work.

Obama: I’ve been looking at, because it’s part of the fallout of what you describe: As the economy’s recovering, unemployment is coming down drastically. But one of the puzzles we have is we still have low participation rates among the population in the aggregate, but when you break down why people are not getting back in the labor force even as jobs are being created, a big chunk of that is the young male population –

Simon: With a felony history.

Obama: With felony histories. So now, where we have the opportunity to give them a pathway towards a responsible life, they’re foreclosed, and that’s counterproductive.

Obama: Well, here’s the good news. There is an increasing realization on the left but also on the right, politically, that what we’re doing is counterproductive, either from a Libertarian perspective, the way we treat nonviolent drug crimes is problematic, and from a fiscal perspective is breaking the bank. You end up spending so much more on prison than you would with these kids being in school or even going to college that it’s counterproductive, and it means everyone’s taxes are going up, or at least services that everybody uses are being squeezed, or we can’t hire cops to deal with violent crime as you talked about. But we’re all responsible for at least finding a solution to this, and the encouraging thing is I think awareness is increasing. In part because violent crime has gone down in a lot of big cities, people are more open to having a discussion about this.

Simon: Yeah, they’re not as frightened.

Obama: And I think we have to seize that opportunity. But part of the challenge is going to be making sure, number one, we humanize what so often on the local news is just a bunch of shadowy characters, and tell their stories. That’s why the work you’ve done is so important. And the second thing is enlisting law enforcement as an ally on this. Now Eric Holder, my Attorney General, we started talking about this a few years ago when I first came in to office, and one of the things we tried to do is change how we talk to us attorneys and their offices about what is a measure of effective prosecution. And when we came into office,I think what was [practices] in a lot of state’s attorneys offices, the measure was how much time do you get –

Simon: Charge the maximum.

Obama: Charge the max. And our point is, effectiveness as a prosecutor involves thinking about justice, and being proportional in how you think about these issues. And that’s something we can do administratively, but ultimately we’re going to need legislation, and that’s where raising awareness is going to be important. And law enforcement and prosecutors have to be able to talk about this, and we have to let them know — and you show this in “The Wire” as well — in the same way you’ve got to be able to humanize those involved in the drug trade, we have to remind ourselves that the police, they’ve got a scary, tough, difficult job. And if the rest of society is saying ‘just go deal with this, we don’t want to hear about it,’ and you’re just on the front lines, and ‘just keep it out of our sight lines and its not our problem’ we’re betraying them as well. And ultimately you’re going to have to address some of the environmental issues. And I know that’s not fashionable because the notion is, ‘oh you don't want to make excuses for criminals,’ but what we understand, and what perhaps one of the most moving sections of “The Wire” was, that whole depiction of the schools in Baltimore and public schools, was if kids are left so far behind that they don’t have recourse, they’re going to see what else is available to survive.

Simon: They’re going to learn.

Obama: They’re going to learn something. And so we’re going to have to think about schools and counselors and mental health and ultimately jobs and re-industrialization and I think we understand all that. But if we can start down this path to a more productive way of thinking about drugs and its intersection with law enforcement, twenty years from now we can say to ourselves: ‘well, maybe we got a little smarter.’ And we didn’t get here overnight and we’re not going to get out of it overnight, but the fact that we’ve got people talking about it in a smarter way gets me a little encouraged.

Simon: From your mouth to God’s ear.

The President's point was abundantly clear. The American social culture is "carving out" a major part of the population and basically ruining them, obliterating their chances to ever participate in the economy, the leadership of the country, in many cases vote in elections, to have stable families -- the list is endlessly sickening. Perhaps the worst part of this are the unquestionable "motives" driving this colossal, mass ruination.

That list is not only a dark shadow of the twisted culture here decades ago, it is an on-going marker for racism and class divisions which has, thanks to generations of obedient, largely "law and order," Republican Congressmen, been transformed into a "profit center" for every parasitic judicial "hanger on" from trial lawyers, corrupt judges, rapacious bail bondsmen and corporate prisons. To keep the scam going, sentencing guidelines have been as rational as the spinning prize selector on "Wheel of Fortune."

[New Mexico, the poorest state in the union, has a state budget which is "slammed" with prisoner recidivism expenses. MeanMesa has posted on this before: MeanMesa - Fixing New Mexico's Budget and Prisons]

With that posted it's time to lay out MeanMesa's plan to mitigate a small part of this atrocity. Taken as a whole, the entire thing is hideous, and the mitigation of even a small part of this ineffective, destructive, judicial Juggernaut is well worth considering. The particular small part in MeanMesa's "cross hairs" is the "school to prison" track which exists at the core of much of this problem.

Let's Visit Our Third Grader's World
The childhood foundation of a sacrificed life

To map out the problem being addressed in this post, we can visit the theoretical life of a hypothetical third grader attending an "inner city" school in a "bad neighborhood" somewhere in the country. Of course our example doesn't have to be a school in an "inner city," it can be a poorly funded, ineffective public school anywhere -- inner city or not. However, there are more destructive factors in our third grader's life beyond the school he is attending.

Since we are only speculating, let's add a few.

He is the child of an unwed mother who, although she has one or two minimum wage, part time jobs, still receives assistance in the form of home heating subsidies, food stamps and Medicaid health coverage for her son. The apartment where this family lives is in a shabby, low rent complex. Too many of the neighbors are gang members, petty criminals or drug dealers while others live frightened, low income lives isolated behind locked doors.

A good percentage of these neighbors that our hypothetical third grader sees daily have no jobs paying a wage high enough to sustain life and little prospect of ever getting one. The criminal activities are not glaring exceptions, instead, they are a way of life. On the occasions when the police must be called, they are mechanically statutory and unsympathetic if not out rightly frightening.

The possibilities of arrests, courts and prison time are every day companions. The news of some one's son being convicted and sentenced flows around the residents of the complex  -- including our third grader -- daily. Many of the adults in this hypothetical third grader's world have conviction records of the type the President mentioned.

The place also has a constant cloud of sudden violence. The boy knows to keep a close eye on who may be around as he comes home from school. His mother constantly warns him about it.

He watches his mother worry constantly about her family's sorely taxed finances. She worries that some economic catastrophe might show up unexpectedly, wrecking the family's very tight budget for food, school supplies or clothes. She worries that her son might get hurt or get sick, need medicine or some other kind of health intervention. If this were to happen, taking the time for the bus rides required to get him to a doctor would cut into her working hours and possibly even cost her a job.

The Price of Never Glimpsing a Normal Life
The price of alienating children by class and situation

This gets worse.

Our hypothetical third grader knows that not all people live a life similar to the one he lives. He also knows that not everyone lives in the "world" in which he lives. He may see other children in his school who don't seem to have many of the crushing concerns which inhabit his life. He sees people in television shows living in life styles and  houses so lavish that they are almost beyond his imagination.

Successful examples in his apartment complex are typically successful drug dealers and gang commanders, but most of the residents are simply not successful. Workmen and maintenance contractors might come to the apartments to fix something, but they arrive in trucks with hundreds of dollars worth of tools in their belts, well fed and healthy. Then they leave in those trucks. They have jobs and homes somewhere -- somewhere else, and mysterious, stable incomes -- and mysteriously stable lives and mysteriously comfortable families.

This is the "problem," and that "problem" is the world our third grader sees. He very understandably places himself, his mother and his life in this "world." The possibilities which fill the dreams of our third grader are possibilities which exist in this world. His image of a successful future is the image of himself with the "successes" he sees around him. It is an image woven on this loom and woven from this thread.

[image credit]
If he happens to be a minority, the range and scope of this "future possibility" becomes even more limited and darker. The "ticket" for the "school to prison" express is purchased from the ticket counter of defeat, and the fare is hopelessness, collected patiently, year after year, in the worried thoughts preceding sleep -- even for the brief span of years comprising the lifetime of a third grader.

If this picture seems overly dramatic or exaggerated, bear in mind that one in six children in the United States now lives below the poverty line.

Earlier in the post, mentioned was made of a "proposal." Let's get to it.

The "Proposal"
Low cost, effective and it doesn't 
"insult" the "purity" of GOP ideology

Of course, an "idealistic dreamer" might run directly to some fantastical idea such as "Let's fix the economy, stupid," but we know that the billionaire owners of the Congress will never allow such an "expensive" idea to cut any more deeply into their tax cuts. So, what remains "on the table" if we intend to address our third grader's "hopelessness" problem?

This kid desperately needs to see at least a glimpse of a "different world." A real one.

With a little cooperation from the Department of Education [and, possibly the President] here is a plan which goes directly to our third grader's "world view problem." We can divide the narrative into separate parts. We can consider a summary for a start.

Program Summary:

This proposal is to create a good sized collection of interviews of short video interview vignettes -- five to ten minutes each. The people interviewed will be individuals who are successfully living and working at jobs commonly found throughout the economy. They will be living in various places all across the country, and they will be performing jobs from a wide range of employment. 

In each case the interviewees will be willing to share a quick profile of their personal stories -- what life is like for them, a short recap of how they got to where they are, what problems they are facing at this time and bit of a description of their ambitions for the future.

The interviews will be frank, honest and essentially anonymous. Each one is designed to simply present a picture of a somewhat "more normal" American life than what our hypothetical third grader may be assuming given his environment. The individuals interviewed in the videos should range in age as appropriate for the corresponding age of the students viewing. Likewise, all types, genders, race and other variables should be included.

An Example Video Session:

Our hypothetical third grader is sitting in his classroom when his teacher announces that there will be a short video. The video begins with a young man -- perhaps twenty years old or so -- introducing himself by his first name. Next, he introduces his wife or girlfriend who is holding his infant daughter. As the video continues, he "tours" his apartment showing the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen, the furniture and, perhaps, even a quick view of the neighborhood. This is not an elaborate apartment in any way, but instead, quite a common one with respect to size and amenities.

He sits down in the living room to tell a few details about himself and his life. This includes a very frank discussion about the family income, where he works, what he does there and so forth. He explains about how he got his job and how he gets to work. He explains the monthly cost of the apartment and its utilities.

Perhaps he describes his car along with a few details about different repair jobs he's had to do to maintain it, but also including other information such as how much it cost when he bought it, the cost of insuring it, the travel distance to his job or the nearest grocery, the mileage it usually gets and the weekly cost of buying gasoline for it.

His story might include a little about his education, especially emphasizing its important relation to the job that he has. If it is appropriate, he expands this part of his interview a little, explaining how specific classes he studied prepared him for the work he is doing.

The interview might also include an account of what trouble the young man has had -- trouble with the police or with personal matters such as the death of a parent or money problems. This part of the interview might include an account of some of the mistakes the young man has made when he was younger. Was there an unplanned pregnancy? Did he wind up in jail? Was his drivers license suspended?

The interview might end with a few details of the young man's dreams and ambitions for his future. A better job? Going to college or the military?

The interviewees:

MeanMesa is attracted to the idea of soliciting volunteers to "star" in the videos. There are plenty of young men and women in the country who are very interested in doing what they can to assist young students like our hypothetical third grader and, for them, appearing in such an interview might be a good way to accomplish this.

The identity of the interviewee and the city where his home is located are not revealed in the interview.

Of course not everyone who volunteers to be interviewed will necessarily be a "perfect match." However, this proposal is very intentionally seeking a wide ranging variety of "stars," not just a collection of sterile "Brady Bunch" silhouettes. The goal is to videotape the real stories of real people, "warts and all." Anything less will not be convincing enough to relay the message to savvy grade school and high school students.

Plenty of good, solid Americans have been to jail by the time they become young adults. Some have spent time being homeless. Some have lived in violent neighborhoods, been discriminated against and been bullied by their school mates. Some were too fat and others were too skinny. Some had acne, strange bodies and weird faces.

Lots have come from families so toxic that even their abbreviated biographies can be critically useful for inspiring hope. Video stories of individuals surviving these things and ultimately becoming somewhat successful carry an important message to youngsters who are just beginning similar "journeys" in their lives.

The videos:

MeanMesa sees an impressively sized library of these videos. There should be enough in the national repository that any school teacher who has decided to show one every week or two can be supplied with enough "new material" so as to never have to show the same one twice. Videos can be mailed as CD's in postage paid, returnable packing or simply electronically emailed to a school's main frame or a teacher's PC.

The task of performing the interviews and editing the results into a suitable video could easily become an "intern study project" for communications or media classes at state universities. In some cases a sort of rough script for such an interview might be helpful, but this can be left to the "producers."

The administration and operation of a national video repository will require a little labor, but not much. This will include keeping a record of which videos have been sent to which teachers to avoid accidentally sending repeats. The final videos should probably be reviewed for content, but this process should not ever become overly aggressive or "externally judgmental." 

There should not be any flaming evangelicals, motor cycle club members, conspiracy theorists or any other rabid societal ideologues sitting on the "review committee."

Making It Happen

This idea has two important advantages working in its favor from the very start. First, the entire program can be implemented as a remarkably low cost. Second, this plan will do far better with a creative force driving it than with an institutional one. This second advantage even extends to the case when the plan's driving force is a well funded, governmental type of legislative sponsorship.

In MeanMesa's vision for this part of the proposal, perhaps the optimal organization would be Department of Education grants to various university communications departments -- matched by grants from a philanthropic foundation interested in a goal like this one. An established foundation would, very likely, already have the administrative and management team to handle such a project.

Further, once the revenue stream had been worked out, the task of producing the videos could be distributed to a number of recipient university departments. The plan could host a contest with judging and selection based not only on the business plans submitted but also by judging the creativity and effectiveness actual "test/sample" videos also submitted as a part of a contest entry.

This same approach might prove helpful with "re-normalizing" the world view of child soldiers or young people traumatized by military violence around their homes.

For any blog visitors who find this idea interesting, this proposal needs a champion.

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