April 29 2015

When Proposition 47 passed last November, it made history. California voters decided they would take the national lead in doing something significant about the crisis of mass incarceration.

Prop. 47 rebalances the justice system so that low level, non-violent crimes do not result in felony convictions and prison time. This is important because even a long-ago felony conviction can feel like a life sentence—blocking job and education opportunities, decimating families, and leading to a never-ending cycle of poverty and re-offense. We see it play out in communities throughout California and across the U.S.

It’s expensive to hold someone in prison, so California is expected to save tens of millions of dollars thanks to Proposition 47. A portion of that financial savings—25 percent—will go to the California Department of Education (CDE) to fund schools in a way that helps prevent contact with the justice system. But how schools use that money is important. This week, policymakers in Sacramento started weighing the options. I believe CDE should aggressively invest Proposition 47 savings in prevention—focusing on the areas of the school system most likely to keep young people from ever entering the justice system in the first place. And CDE should invest in reducing suspensions and improving school climate.

Reducing suspensions is critical, because research shows they often push young people away from school and toward the juvenile justice system. A recent study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that almost 90 percent of young people in juvenile halls across the country had already been suspended from school at least once. Other studies show that even one suspension triples the likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system and doubles a child’s likelihood of dropping out of school, thereby increasing the chances of involvement with the adult criminal justice system.

The good thing is we know how to invest in schools to slow—and maybe even stop—the flow of young people into the criminal justice system. The best way to both reduce suspension rates and increase graduation rates is to build a healthy school climate using proven strategies like restorative justice, positive behavior supports, and social and emotional learning.  Experts agree that creating a positive school climate should be our first and most important task when trying to turn around underperforming schools.

With the savings from Proposition 47 we should invest in those interventions, like restorative justice, that steer young people away from the justice system and not in those that steer young people toward it, like school police.  As the billboards you might have seen around town say, let’s Do the Math. We know the right answer.