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Last week, an article in the Los Angeles Times documented an alarming trend: L.A. County spends $233,000 a year for each teen it incarcerates. That’s more than the cost of a college education, and vastly more than the approximately $2,000 per year HOLA spends on each of our students, 98% of whom go on to graduate high school and attend college. Stunned by this figure, and feeling that these resources could be better allocated, I want to share with you some of the things I’ve learned about the school-to-prison pipeline and how best to advocate for pro-kid policy agendas.

According to the ACLU, the “school to prison pipeline” refers to the policies and practices that push our nation’s most at-risk children out of the classroom and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. This pipeline reflects the prioritization of incarceration over education. For many students, the pipeline begins with inadequate resources in public schools, which results in overcrowded classrooms and cutbacks in “enrichment extras” that HOLA provides, including counselors, visual arts, music, and one-on-one tutoring and mentoring.  When schools are under resourced, students often become disengaged and drop out, which increases their risk of later court involvement.  And the vast majority of students who become involved in the juvenile justice system never graduate from high school.

Since the early 1970s, the United States prison population has quadrupled to 2.2 million. It is the largest prison population in the world. According to the human rights group Human Rights Watch, while prison should be a last resort, in the United States “it has been treated as the medicine that cures all ills.”

Author of the widely acclaimed book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes that students, parents and teachers need to promote programs that will improve the quality of education and community life. “We’re foolish if we think we’re going to end mass incarceration unless we are willing to deal with the reality that huge percentages of poor people are going to remain jobless, locked out of the mainstream economy, unless and until they have a quality education that prepares them well for the new economy.”

Friends, for Heart of Los Angeles, the answer is clear: Let us invest in quality afterschool care for our youth instead of billions of dollars in prisons. If even just a fraction of our resources were diverted to the education nonprofit sector, we would see a change in student engagement and college matriculation rates: this I’ve seen in the work HOLA does. We choose exceptional, engaging programming for our youth, that fills their time and gives them a reason to love learning again. We choose education over incarceration. We encourage you to do the same.


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