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?
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.