by Jacob Oldaker
The Honorable Doris Smith-Ribner highlighted the importance and dire need for new ideas and strategies to reduce recidivism. The school-to-prison-pipeline (SPP) is a common reality in society as primarily, underprivileged boys and young men, particularly of black and Hispanic dissent, are thrust into the criminal justice system at a young age as a result of disadvantages to which they have no control. Judge Smith-Ribner speaks in Justice: Healing for the Past: Opportunity in the Future about different programs and organizations that have attempted to create opportunity for underprivileged youth to keep them out of the criminal justice system at a young age. She mentions the “Smart on Crime” initiative that was started by the Department of Justice implementing crime prevention and reentry policies. Extensions of this initiative were put into place to develop inmate education programs and vocational training for those young men that do become imprisoned. Despite these profound efforts, studies have shown that these two minorities are 50% more likely to drop out of school and in 2012, black males were 6 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males and Hispanic males were 2-1/2 times more likely.
President Obama realized the growing problem in America and in 2012, by Executive Order, launched a White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The goal was to “strengthen this country by improving educational outcomes for Blacks and Hispanics and to help ensure their preparation for college and productive careers and lives.
Judge Ribner details many people who are hard at work to eliminate the mass number of imprisoned youth in this great nation but I began to wander, who else can help. Who can make a difference? The nation must disrupt this school-to-prison-pipeline to save lives; to promote the future; to strengthen the economy; to reduce incarceration rates; and to promote public safety. The next step of this genesis lies in the lands of lawyers and the legal community.
Gregory Volz, David Keller Trevaskis, and Rachel Miller authored Article: Youth Courts: Lawyers Helping Students Make Better Decisions and explained the importance and power that attorneys possess to make an impact on the youth prison rates. In 2004, the Journal of Poverty and Law and Policy found that “Our Society has the economic capacity to do almost anything to which it grants importance. We have the economic capacity to address poverty. What seems to be lacking is the political will . . . .” We, as a nation, need to establish the “will” to promote poverty and that comes from turning to the legal community.
Public interest lawyers will be the driving force behind bringing the remainder of the legal field up to speed and as advocates in the discussion. As a future lawyer, my existence and my career centers around advancing justice. A building block of this goal will come through the promotion of youth courts to restore opportunity to these youths. As a lawyer, I will be concerned with the injustice of lack of opportunity, the failed educational systems, and the rationally inconsistent criminal systems affecting the youth of this nation. The young men and boys affected are no longer enjoying the economic opportunity on which America was founded. As lawyers, we have professional rules of conduct to “improve the law, the legal system or the legal profession.” The youth courts that are so greatly impacting the incarceration rates in the United States are the responsibility of lawyers, the legal community, and myself, as a future lawyer of America.
As a community, we carry the influence to reach government officials, government agencies, major corporations, judges, and law firms who all hold power in our society and can push forward in advocating for youth courts. As a stepping stone towards reducing these high incarceration rates, lawyers can step in as youth court instructors. As a pro bono service, lawyers will mentor our youth and will help the youth succeed in life’s journey and is an example of exceptional, public service. We are the problem solvers of this great nation. We are the most qualified individuals to create effective programs to end the school-to-prison-pipeline.
Gregory Volz, , David K. Trevaskis, & Rachel Miller, Youth Courts: Lawyers Helping Students Make Better Decisions, 15 U. Pa. J.L. & Soc. Change 199 (2012).
Available at: http://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/jlasc/vol15/iss2/3
Doris Smith-Ribner, Justice: Healing for the Past: Opportunity in the Future, 8 Widener J.L., Econ. & Race 33, (2017).