Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Mississippi

TalkPoverty has focused extensively on the significant connection between the criminal justice system and poverty. One study found that our nation’s poverty rate would have dropped by 20% if not for mass incarceration.  But a key area we have yet to explore is the school-to-prison pipeline—a combination of unjust policies and practices that criminalize student behavior. It’s a system that pushes millions of students—primarily children of color—out of the education system and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

 The Mississippi Center for Justice is fighting not only to end the school-to-prison pipeline, but to reform structures that perpetuate poverty in one of the poorest states in the nation.  TalkPoverty Assistant Editor Alyssa Peterson spoke with Reilly Morse, President and CEO, about the organization’s work.

Alyssa Peterson: Tell me about what your organization does and your role?

Reilly Morse: The Mississippi Center for Justice was founded in 2003 by Martha Bergmark, a longtime civil legal aid lawyer and a Mississippi native. We saw legal services as an antipoverty tool go through the wringer in the late 70s through to the 90s. And, after seeing all that on the national level, [Bergmark] worked on ways to arrive at a privately-funded version of what I think had originally been the vision of a lot of legal services programs: to provide meaningful impact work and to use the system of justice to eliminate poverty or reduce it.

The idea was to identify locations in Mississippi where meaningful, smart strategies that looked at economic justice issues on the civil legal aid side, could make a real impact. We began working on restoring Medicaid benefits to people living below the poverty level, seniors, and people with disabilities. Later, two years into the life of the organization, Hurricane Katrina struck, and [Bergmark] hired a couple of people, including me, to start a Katrina Recovery office. Over the next seven years, we did a lot of impact work, but the most significant was getting Governor Barbour to commit $132 million to finish a housing recovery that he had [previously] walked away from halfway through. This money has all gone to low-income households to repair, restore, and reconstruct their homes.

We also remain very focused on healthcare efforts. We have basically a totally recalcitrant legislature when it comes to expanding Medicaid, but we are also seeing such great strains on rural hospitals that we are hoping that these strains will turn around our state legislature when it comes to the need to find a way to put a floor under those hospitals, to put some kind of financial support, to keep them open.

Conservatives have limited the kinds of legal aid services that can be supported by federal funding. Can you provide background on historical context for that and why it’s really important that legal aid be at the center of anti-poverty efforts?

We have to be able to step into the layers of institutional inequity and alter them at that systemic level

So, the Center’s view is that we need to be a voice that has fiscal independence. We have to be able to go in whatever direction we need to. We are not going to solve problems of poverty in Mississippi just by providing assistance to individual poor people one at a time. So, we have to be able to step into the layers of institutional inequity and alter them at that systemic level if we’re going to have any kind of effect at all. Just about every system that’s here – whether it’s the judicial system, whether it’s the political system or otherwise – is already calcified against poor people. It takes a powerful incursion into that to try to make meaningful change, so we have to have flexibility.

You do a lot of work on the school-to-prison pipeline, where students, primarily students of color, are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile justice system and criminal justice system. How is this playing out on the ground in Mississippi?

Well, in the Mississippi Delta, where a lot of this work is done, you have public schools that are sharply underfunded; that are predominantly African-American; and in which teachers and administrators tend to turn school infractions into criminal or youth court infractions more than they should. So, you have a higher than normal number of referrals to youth court for offenses that are not criminal offenses and that can be properly addressed by the school systems.

We [also] learned that the rules for school discipline are wildly different between districts. In some cases, the basic rules and requirements of due process are hardly there. In other cases, you can’t find where [the rules concerning due process] are, and still in other cases, the rules are contradictory.

Our job is to intervene on behalf of these kids and their parents to make sure the law is observed and to invoke in the fullest possible way all the rights they have. This means fighting so that there aren’t referrals to youth court for things that aren’t criminal offenses, and ensuring that, if there’s an offense, that it’s treated with proportionality.

Still, there are instances in our state where there are widely disproportionate penalties placed on children. From what we’ve discovered, the students’ first experience with the justice system, whether it’s school discipline or youth court, tends to have a very powerful, negative effect on their lives, especially on the school system side. Contact with the justice system sours their view about how things are when they get out of school and when they get into the world. That, I think, erodes confidence in law enforcement and in the courts, and that stays with them for life. In addition, once kids are referred to court system and pick up a criminal charge, that charge stays with them and produces barriers to housing, future employment, and public assistance.

I was told that you all represented a first-grader who was suspended for a year for bringing a pink toy gun to school. Are these sorts of punishments for minor incidents common?

That’s a particularly colorful example, but you’ll have all kinds of instances like that. In fact, there was a Department of Justice consent decree entered in the Meridian School District with similar types of examples – children disciplined for wearing nonmatching socks, or doing various other things that are just trivial, flippant, kid things. They are not stuff that you send somebody to youth court for.

We try to build the capacity to address poverty so we do not have to depend on someone from the outside swooping in, solving one problem, and leaving. This is about building a consistent, long-term force for upward mobility for Mississippi.

The President requested a 33 percent increase in their budget request for the Office for Civil Rights, which often enforces these cases. Do you think greater federal enforcement would have an impact in Mississippi?

It can only help but it’s important that there is also state-level recognition and respect for these requirements. It ought not only be on the Feds to enforce the Constitution of our nation. It ought to be part of what our state Attorney General does, and it ought to be part of what our legislature takes into account when it passes laws. But they [the legislature] only seem to have an appetite for increasing punishment for the poor.

For example, last year, they passed a law to do drug testing of TANF beneficiaries, and the initial version of that law said that any person who did not pass the drug test would be disqualified. But then, our [implementing] agency passed rules saying that anyone in the family who was receiving benefits would also be disqualified. That wasn’t in the scope of the law, so we pushed back. You can see that there’s a default tendency to find a way to punish more poor people if you can get away with it, and that’s happening at the state level.

It seems on the national level that there is momentum between conservatives and progressives to reach a consensus to reform the criminal justice system? Have you seen that in Mississippi, and what would that compromise look like?

That’s interesting because [reform] has some momentum on the sentencing side. Last year, the high cost of incarceration reached a threshold of pain for our state leaders, and they started to look at ways to deal with non-violent offenders, particularly by resentencing or altering parole and probation rules for certain classes of offenders. They’re finding ways to lower the population in our prisons for non-violent offenders, and that’s kind of a remarkable step forward for our state. I’m very happy about it. It’s a small, but important, step.

So what are some of your upcoming fights and goals for the year?

We are very interested in putting some kind of uniform due process standards into place for school districts when dealing with discipline issues. This is how to root out systemic problems and how to make headway on our education and poverty challenges

We also are very interested in further pushing out an initiative we began about two years ago called the New Roots Credit Partnership. The program is an alternative to pay-day lending, and involves pairing public employers with banks and credit unions that offer saner alternatives to payday loans. [These alternatives have] lower interest rates, better repayment terms, and mechanisms that aren’t engineered to push people further into a hole. Those are probably the top two priorities.



The answer to homelessness? Reliable employment.

This week, the city of Boston conducted its annual Homeless Census, during which teams of volunteers spanned the city and counted the number of people living on the streets, in shelters, or transitional housing. Data from the annual count is used to make decisions about where to spend scarce resources to reduce and prevent homelessness among individuals and families.

The quick and obvious answer to the question of how to address homelessness is to provide permanent housing to those who need it. A New Yorker article published last fall about Utah’s wildly successfully policy of giving housing to people who are homeless went viral on social media. Last month, Seattle officials announced plans to open three “tent cities” to provide shelter to people who are homeless. In addition, President Obama’s plan to end homelessness among veterans has had success, in part, because of its focus on immediately placing people who are homeless into permanent housing without requiring them to first complete an alcohol or drug treatment program.

The ultimate solution must include reforms that will prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

There is no question that one of the keys to reducing homelessness among individuals and families is to provide them with housing. But much like health reform advocates known as “upstreamists” want to see health insurers pay for prevention initiatives that will keep people healthy, those working to end homelessness know that the ultimate solution must include reforms that will prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

For example, a veteran who is able to find employment is much less likely to experience homelessness than one who can’t land a job in the first place. A single parent with two school age children needs to earn at least $29.30 an hour (in Massachusetts) in order to dramatically lessen the likelihood of experiencing homelessness or housing instability that that same parent would face earning minimum wage. And a person trying to find housing after a period of incarceration is unlikely to succeed unless he or she is also able to find employment, a task that may prove difficult due to the common practice of potential employers discriminating against applicants who have criminal records.

In order to achieve longer-term success in reducing homelessness, we should focus on three areas:

Community support for those trying to live independently after a period of incarceration.

People with criminal records face barriers to employment due to discrimination. It’s hard to think of anyone better situated to make the successful transition from prison than Piper Kerman, author of the memoir Orange Is the New Black upon which the successful Netflix series is based. When Kerman sought to rebuild her life after her release from prison, she enjoyed the support of family and friends, and had the advantage of past career accomplishments. Yet in multiple interviews, she cites one factor as being the most important in her post-incarceration success: the job that a friend had waiting for her, and which she was able to begin just one week after leaving prison. Very few of those emerging from prison have a job waiting for them. As they seek employment, many will need intensive skills training, as well as support connecting them with health care providers and, if needed, substance abuse programs. Further, we need reforms that address the many barriers formerly incarcerated people face, with regard to employment, housing, public assistance, education and training, building good credit, and more.

 Job skills training for the long-term unemployed.

It takes marketable skills in local, growing industries to land a job that will lift someone out of homelessness―and keep them housed. Such training must run the gamut from classroom-based instruction in computer and customer service skills to actual employment via internships or social enterprises focused on providing real world work experience. Robust training programs will also support job seekers throughout the employment application and interview process, offer meaningful references and networking opportunities, and provide ongoing support during the inevitable ups and downs of employment.

Support for those who are disproportionately likely to experience homelessness.

Veterans, single mothers living in poverty, and individuals dealing with substance abuse, particularly those who are also living in poverty, are all disproportionately likely to become homeless, while at the same time facing multiple barriers to employment. To reduce their risk, we need more targeted outreach with services tailored to meet the needs of these groups, which can help them stabilize their lives so that they never become homeless in the first place. These services include assistance accessing health care, including mental health care and substance use recovery programs; legal assistance with collecting financial support from estranged or divorced partners; and affordable daycare.

While it is critical that we provide housing to reduce homelessness among individuals and families, the ultimate solution to ending homelessness must involve preventing it from occurring in the first place. That means reliable employment that pays decent wages—it means talking jobs as well as homes.




Addressing Basic Needs through Financial Empowerment

“I don’t have the bandwidth to talk about identity theft.” – Re-entry case manager

 “Front-line staff won’t take on a formerly incarcerated person’s debt; that’s outside their job description.” – program manager

 “Job developers can’t be expected to have the skills to take on jobseekers’ banking relationships.” – executive director

We often hear service providers suggest that people in crisis can’t afford to focus on their personal finances—that building financial security only makes sense after a person’s basic survival needs have been met. Many community-based organizations also say that financial empowerment is beyond the scope of what they can or should do.

These assumptions are not only outdated, they’re counterproductive.

Nearly 25 years ago, Dr. Michael Sherraden proved wrong those who doubted that poor people could save. His book Assets and the Poor, in which he called for Individual Development Accounts (IDAs)—matched savings accounts that would help low-income families build assets—went on to become a seminal body of work. It gave birth to a field and a new way of thinking about how to fight poverty. It also reminded us that a strengths-based approach to human and social services—one focusing on future outcomes and an individual’s self-determination and strengths—is not only empowering, it also produces results.

The Financial Clinic’s “New Ground Initiative” builds on Dr. Sherraden’s work by taking a broader look at how we think about financial empowerment. For many people struggling on the brink, financial security is about much more than home ownership or retirement planning; it requires tackling complicated challenges not often viewed as “financial”—such as barriers to rejoining one’s community after incarceration.

The New Ground Initiative seeks to increase the capacity of re‐entry programs—which serve individuals returning to their communities after incarceration—to address barriers to financial security. Formerly incarcerated individuals face many significant obstacles to economic security—such as barriers to employment, housing, public assistance, and education and training. Many of these barriers are the result of “collateral consequences”—penalties embedded in public policy that prevent people with criminal records from accessing basics such as a job, an apartment, or vital public assistance programs such as food stamps.

For many people struggling on the brink, financial security requires tackling complicated challenges not often viewed as “financial.”

The New Ground Initiative trains re-entry service providers on how to tackle these and other financial obstacles. These efforts have created powerful and inspiring achievements in the areas of employment, housing, and education.

For example, after returning home from incarceration, John (name changed) was worried about starting work and opening a bank account; he was afraid that his child support arrears would cause his new wages to be garnished. He is far from alone—unaffordable child support obligations are a major driver of post-incarceration debt. In fact, many formerly incarcerated individuals are released only to find that their child support debts have accumulated into the tens of thousands of dollars while they were behind bars. However, because of the training he did with New Ground, a job developer was able to help John modify his child support order to an affordable amount and then helped him open a bank account. The job developer also helped John set up direct deposit on his first day of work.

New Ground has also enabled re-entry programs to help their clients’ access housing opportunities. For example, Sarah was having trouble securing an apartment after returning home from incarceration. She had her credit report pulled by a re-entry service provider and they found that she was a victim of identity theft. The program referred Sarah to a financial coach, who was able to support her in getting the fraudulent debt removed, which in turn enabled her to rent an apartment.

Another re-entry program—focused on helping people achieve their educational goals after exiting jail or prison—reported that training with New Ground was fundamental to the program’s ability to help participants negotiate old student loan debt. Lowering monthly student loan payments allowed these individuals to make ends meet and return to school.

These successes confirm the Clinic’s model that strategies to build financial security in turn reduce barriers to basic needs. They also demonstrate that projects like the New Ground Initiative can help programs that serve justice-involved individuals achieve even better results.

You can stay informed about the Financial Clinic and help spread the word about its services by signing up here.




Free college plan will help, not hurt, low-income students

President Obama recently introduced a proposal to make two years of community college free nationwide. This is a bold effort that might not have been necessary twenty years ago, but today it is sorely needed. There is a popular perception that community college is already free or nearly free, especially for students from low-income households, and that the real challenges facing students have more to do with academic under-preparation or informational barriers.

If only this were true.

The average out of pocket cost facing community college students from low-income families ranges from $8,000-$11,000 per year. That is after all grant aid is taken into account, and it represents the amount that students must borrow and earn in order to make college possible. The situation facing moderate-income families is not much better—and they are often in a more difficult situation since they have little disposable income and yet cannot access the federal Pell Grant.

Thirty years ago, high schools were focused on helping more students envision college as part of their future. Two decades ago they began really focusing on academic preparation for college. But today, ambitious, academically prepared high school graduates are attending college and leaving without degrees because they cannot afford to be there. Among the academically prepared, more than one in five high school graduates from low-income families forgoes college entirely, and about 30 percent who start at a two-year college never complete any degree. These non-completion rates signal talent loss, and things have gotten worse over the last decade.

Among the academically prepared, more than one in five high school graduates from low-income families forgoes college entirely.

As an education scholar and researcher who has published extensively on the topic of college affordability, I’m troubled by the response of many progressives and scholars who criticize President Obama’s free community college proposal for not being “narrowly targeted.” The implication is that only a plan that exclusively serves low-income students, and no one else, can meet their needs. This is a false narrative, capable of sowing confusion and killing the prospects of legislation that could do real good.

The truth is that low-income students stand to benefit from free community college in real and measurable ways that will increase their access, boost their persistence, and raise their graduation rates. Since the president’s plan is a “first-dollar” plan, low-income students would receive the greatest subsidies. Students would not have to give up their Pell grants; instead, because tuition would be free, Pell grant funding could be used to meet costs other than tuition. Thus, I predict that low-income and moderate-income students would realize greater gains than their more affluent classmates. The clear and inclusive signal created by “free community college” coupled with the progressive distribution of monetary benefits makes this effective “targeting within universalism.”

Rigorous studies have shown that reducing the cost of community college by even $1,000 a year results in substantial increases across the board. More low-income students enroll directly from high school. More low-income students enroll who would not otherwise have enrolled at all. More low-income students transfer to four-year colleges. And the students who would not have enrolled—except for the fact that community college became more affordable—are more than 20 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within eight years of high school graduation. All that for a $1,000 discount? Imagine what those numbers would be if the first two years of community college—or any college, as Senator Bernie Sanders recently proposed—were made free.

To help advance a greater understanding of the value and mechanics of making the first two years of college free, I’ve written a response to questions many people have about the president’s proposal. In addition, I’ll be participating in a public discussion with economist Steven Durlauf on the topic that will be held March 12 on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and televised in the state and online via Wisconsin Eye. Our national dialogue on the merits of making postsecondary education available to everyone—and affordable—is, finally, beginning.




A Glimmer of Positive News: Wages Rose for Bottom 10 Percent (Unlike for Everybody Else)

In a report released this week, I found that 2014 continued a 35-year trend of broad-based wage stagnation. Real, inflation-adjusted hourly wages stagnated or fell across the board, with one notable, glimmer of positive news: Unlike the rest of the wage distribution, wages actually increased at the 10th percentile between 2013 and 2014.

The figure below shows changes in real hourly wages throughout the wage distribution between 2013 and 2014. What is particularly striking is that almost every decile and the 95th percentile experienced real wage declines from 2013 to 2014, with two exceptions. First, there was a very small increase at the 40th percentile wage, up 3 cents, or 0.3 percent. But a more economically significant increase occurred at the 10th percentile where hourly wages were up 11 cents, or 1.3 percent.

So, why did wages at the bottom tick up when they fell for nearly everyone else? What is so special about that wage that sits below 90 percent and above 10 percent of workers (i.e., is not generally earned by particularly privileged workers)?

The answer is simple: we still have some labor standards that provide wage protections. More specifically, 18 states increased their minimum wage in 2014 (either through legislation or through automatic inflation adjustments). The states with minimum wage increases in 2014, displayed in green below, represent 57 percent of the workforce.

When we compare states with and without a minimum wage increase, we find clear evidence that the minimum wage is the reason people at the 10th percentile wage didn’t see the negative trends found elsewhere in the workforce. The figure below compares the wages in these states with those in states without minimum wage increases. Wages at the 10th percentile rose by 1.6% in states with minimum wage increases, while in states without such an increase, they pretty much stagnated—increasing by a scant 0.3%.

The great news in this story is that policy can actually affect the labor market. And, it is imperative that we use all the policy levers at our disposal to help rejuvenate the economy, create jobs, and build stronger wage and income growth for the 99%.