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Juvenile justice

We got a press release today from the Maine Civil Liberties Union, whose Alysia Melnick testified in Augusta today in support of LD 1658, a bill that would create study groups to analyze Maine's high-school graduation rates. The bill was proposed by Portland state senator Justin Alfond. Melnick, who serves as the MCLU's public policy counsel, expressed specific concerns about schools' "zero-tolerance policies," which may push students -- particularly minority students -- off the mainstream education path and into the juvenile justice system. Here's an excerpt from her testimony, given before the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

Our concern in this area stems from research which shows that zero tolerance policies and disproportionate or inappropriate use of suspensions and expulsions contribute to the trend known as 'the school-to-prison pipeline.'  This pipeline refers to the growing practice of criminalizing, rather than educating, our nation's children, and is one of the most important civil rights challenges facing our nation today. 

Zero-tolerance disciplinary policies are often the first step in a child's journey through the school-to-prison pipeline because they impose severe discipline on students without regard to individual circumstances or the long term consequences.  Under these policies, children have been expelled for giving Midol to a classmate, bringing household goods (including a kitchen knife) to school to donate to Goodwill, and bringing scissors to class for an art project. 

Further, there is no evidence that zero-tolerance policies or overuse of suspensions and expulsions make schools safer or improve student behavior.  On the contrary, research suggests that these practices may actually increase the likelihood of later criminal misconduct.

Remarkably relevant to the MCLU's testimony is this article from today's New York Times, which describes Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan "to merge the city’s Department of Juvenile Justice into its child welfare agency, signaling a more therapeutic approach toward delinquency that will send fewer of the city’s troubled teenagers to jail."

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