Suicide Decriminalization and Prison Abolition


Until the 1970s, the Western world criminalized attempted suicide. It was decriminalized because of new theories of mental health, the eugenics and euthanasia movement, a shift in legal focus to individual rights and privacy, and a lack of justification for penalizing self-harm through criminal means. Today suicide is only a crime in the few states that follow criminal common law, however, it is rarely prosecuted.

Although attempted suicide has been decriminalized in the United States, suicides occur twice as often as homicides each year. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States for the overall population and the second leading cause of death among people between 10 and 34 years-old. The suicide rate has increased for thirteen years in a row with the highest rate since World War II in 2017.

In this series of posts I will analyze the decriminalization of suicide in light of the prison  abolition framework offered by Allegra McLeod. McLeod is a legal scholar and abolitionist who defined the “prison abolition ethic” in the article Prison Abolition and Grounded Justice. The way attempted suicide changed in terms of criminal law is exemplified by two key concepts of prison abolition: decriminalization and  preventative justice. I want to explore why decriminalization of suicide has been unsuccessful in lowering suicide rates, whether implementing other strategies outlined in the prison abolition framework would improve the situation, and if this offers any lessons in how prison abolition framework could be successfully applied to other crimes.

In this post I will to discuss the idea of prison abolition, the history of criminalization of suicide, and decriminalization of suicide. I will begin by discussing the prison abolitionist ethic, as outlined by Allegra McCleod. Then, I will discuss how different cultures view suicide and the history of suicide criminalization. This post focuses on England because the United States adopted English common law at its inception. Finally, I will discuss how and why suicide was decriminalized and where suicide stands in criminal law today in the United States.

This series of posts will address the criminalization of suicide and attempted suicide only. It will not discuss physician-assisted suicide, suicide pacts, influencing someone else to commit suicide, or accidental killings of another during attempted suicide.

The Prison Abolitionist Ethic

According to Allegra McLeod, prison abolition is the ethical, institutional, and political framework that aims to demolish the current criminal law and police system in exchange for positive social projects and institutions that work to prevent criminalized conduct. Prison abolition is about more than just tearing down prisons, it is about rethinking justice, security, public safety, and criminality.

There are several key concepts that are necessary for prison abolition to be successful. The first, and most significant, is preventative justice, which “designates a range of measures aimed at reducing the incidence of harmful behavior, typically by targeting the risks posed by specific individuals and less often by addressing the potential harm posed by given social situations.” These preventative measures range from alternatives to detention to funding social programs that reduce crime. Other key concepts are decriminalization, justice reinvestment (meaning “reinvesting criminal law administrative resources in other sectors and also reinvesting the concepts of justice and prevention w/ more expansive meaning”), creating safe harbors for vulnerable persons and communities to care for themselves, alternative livelihood programs to prevent conduct that would usually be addressed by criminal law administration, simple design innovations that improve security, and urban redevelopment that engages community members in projects and populating urban areas.

The following sections outline the history of suicide and attempted suicide criminalization and decriminalization. An abolitionist framework would start with decriminalization, but it wouldn’t end there. It would extend to the root causes of suicide and build out programs to prevent it. Decriminalization does little to promote public welfare without the addition of the concepts laid out in the prison abolition ethic.

Suicide in Different Cultures

The different cultural views of suicide begin within the word itself. The term “suicide” connotes an active verb of “killing.” The root “sui” means himself or herself and “-cide” means to kill. The term suicide did not exist until the 1600s. The terms self-homicide, self-destruction, and self-murder were previously used in the English language. Many other languages did not have an equivalent term because they regarded the act as a passive dying, rather than an active killing.

In ancient Rome, suicide was commendable when it was completed by warriors in battle when defeat was inevitable. In ancient Japan, seppuku was commendable in certain circumstances. Suicide was also deemed honorable in war contexts in several cultures. Buddhists in China widely accepted immolation and it is still accepted among some Buddhists today. Some instances of suicide are accepted in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, but it is unconditionally condemned in the Quran.

Suicide Criminalization

Suicide was first criminalized by the Romans. The Roman Council of Arles “denounced suicide as a diabolical inspiration” and criminalized suicide of servants in the fifth century to prevent the significant number of slave suicides. Attempted suicide of a soldier was also criminalized by Roman military law. The punishment, ironically, was death.

Christianity also played a part in suicide criminalization in Rome. St. Augustine condemned suicide as violating the Sixth Commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”) unequivocally but excused it for the rare virgin suicides that resulted in sainthood, such as with Samson or Pelagia. The Council of Braga in the sixth century denied funeral rites to those who committed suicide. Dishonoring the corpses of persons who completed suicide became customary and then codified into law. Then forfeiture of a victim of suicide’s property to the lord later became codified. The exception was if the suicide was committed as a result of madness or illness. In the thirteenth century, Saint Thomas Aquinas further condemned suicide in his Summa Theologiae. The Catholic perspective of suicide condemnation became the dominant view across Europe.

Suicide Criminalization in England

The Catholic Church’s perspective most likely led to criminalization of suicide and attempted suicide in England. In the thirteenth century, Henry de Bracton considered suicide a felony and wrote that committing suicide resulted in a forfeiture of goods. By the fourteenth century, suicide was called felo de se and treated as a felony. In order to be considered a suicide, the self-killing had to have the legal element of “malicious intent.” Courts would hold post-mortem jury trials to determine intent. The criminal stigma and forfeiture of property could be avoided by a finding of insanity. Either way, there was a customary practice of driving a stake through the corpse’s heart and dumping the body in a pit near a crossroads. This was to prevent the spirit from returning, and ensure that, if the spirit did return, it would be confused as to which direction it should go.

William Blackstone believed that suicide was: “[a] double offence; one spiritual, in invading the prerogative of the Almighty, and rushing into his immediate presence uncalled for; the other temporal, against the king, who hath an interest in the preservation of all his subjects; the law has therefore ranked this among the highest crimes, making it a peculiar species of felony committed on one’s self.”

Suicide Criminalization in America

Suicide criminalization practices varied in the early colonies. Although the colonies adopted English common law, they did not adopt all aspects of it. Suicide was rampant among indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans. Along with the mass deaths of indigenous peoples due to diseases carried over from Europe and conflicts with colonizers, there were also numerous acts of suicide. Enslaved Africans often committed suicide on ships but this was soon prevented by force-feeding and nets which prevented jumping overboard. In the colonies, legislation provided state compensation to slave-owners for the suicide of slaves who were accused of felonies.

Early on in colonial America, Massachusetts adopted the impaling and burial by a highway law from England. However, none of the states considered suicide a crime by the nineteenth century. The colonies decriminalized suicide to set them apart from England during the Revolution and after, with no penalties remaining in the thirteen colonies by 1798. However, attempted suicide was considered a crime at common law. It was treated as a misdemeanor since it was considered an attempted felony. Some states have enacted legislation that expressly rejects common law crimes. If these states did not codify attempted suicide into their criminal statutes then attempted suicide would not be a crime in those jurisdictions. Some states did codify a criminal statute. Most of them mandated that attempted suicide is punishable by up to 2 years in jail, a $1000 fine, or both.

Suicide Decriminalization in England

Ideas about the criminalization and condemnation of suicide began to shift in the seventeenth century as a result of progressive intellectual, scientific, and cultural thought of the age of the Enlightenment. Non compos mentis, or insanity, jury verdicts rose in postmortem suicide trials, which protected families from being forced to forfeit their property. Before the seventeenth century, 2% of suicides had non compos mentis, or insanity verdicts. 42% of verdicts were non compos mentis in 1700 and they rose to 80% in 1750 and 97% in 1800.

In the eighteenth century, society became more secularized and the medical profession emerged. Public perception of suicide became more tolerant. Two suicides in the early nineteenth exemplified the shifting attitudes. The British Foreign Secretary committed suicide in 1822 which put his post-mortem jury in a tough position. They had to decide whether an esteemed member of government was a felon or insane. They returned with a verdict of temporary insanity, meaning that his property was not forfeited to the king and he did not have to have a crude burial by impalement at a crossroads. The next year, in 1823, a law student committed suicide and was subjected to a crossroads burial. There was public outcry and the practice was outlawed the same year by the Burial of Suicide Act.

The property implication of suicide, escheating to the king, was outlawed in the Forfeiture Act of 1870. Although there was no way to penalize completed suicide anymore, attempted suicide began to be considered a misdemeanor. Attempted suicide was officially decriminalized by statute by the Suicide Act of 1961.

Suicide Decriminalization in the United States

The nineteenth century brought the emergence of psychoanalytic theory, social science theory, social Darwinism, and the industrial revolution. Privatization of family life and urbanization created a new disaffected isolation which resulted in a rise of suicide.

The eugenics movement, which evolved from the ideas of social Darwinism, in combination with the creation of morphine, led to the rise of the euthanasia movement,  which was a social movement that lobbied for the legalization of euthanasia. Euthanasia, or mercy killing, is “painlessly putting to death persons suffering from painful and incurable disease or incapacitating physical disorder or allowing them to die by withholding treatment or withdrawing artificial life-support measures.”

Suicide rates spiked during the Great Depression, sparking public awareness and conversations about death and suicide. The Euthanasia Society of America was founded in 1938 by a majority of eugenicists. Euthanasia had significant lobbying efforts and began to grow public support.

Then World War II stopped the euthanasia movement in its tracks. The Nazis murdered nearly twenty million people and committed mass atrocities. People were outraged and disgusted by the crimes of eugenicists written about in the newspapers. They began to equivocate the euthanasia movement with Nazis. After the war, law began to change in the United States, with a focus on individual rights and privacy exemplified by the Warren Supreme Court, which issued a series of landmark rulings in the 1960s.

By the 1970s most states with statutes criminalizing attempted suicide had repealed them. Today, only states that follow criminal common law have the ability to criminalize suicide. This is only a handful of states and attempted suicide is rarely prosecuted.

Suicide and Prison Abolition

The history of suicide criminalization and decriminalization demonstrates that ideas about crime have more to do with politics, religion, and the voices of those in power than it does about rational assessments of the public good. The logical response to preventing suicide or any other behavior looked down upon by society is to investigate why the act was committed and address the root cause. The historical response, however, was to criminalize suicide and punish it after the fact. This did not act as a deterrent but it did have the effect of punishing the family of the victim and enriching the government. This could be said for most crimes that are still criminalized. The root cause of criminal acts is not being addressed and crime continues to occur. The only difference is that suicide is no longer considered a crime. This is largely because of changing attitudes towards suicide that began to consider it a private issue rather than a public one and the fact that the government could no longer profit from suicide in the form of escheatment.

However, suicide rates have only risen since it has been decriminalized. In the last 50 years since decriminalization began, no one has called to criminalize it again to prevent suicide. Since we know that criminalization does not impact the rate of suicide then it probably does little to prevent other acts that are considered crimes. So why do we still punish crimes when this method is ineffective? Suicide is a good example to test out the prison abolition ethic because it was decriminalized even though its prevalence has not changed. Decriminalizing suicide illustrates the importance of the positive project of abolition. Without the society-building features, decriminalization does very little to promote the public welfare.

The next post will discuss how decriminalization has not been successful in lowering suicide rates, if implementation of any of the other key concepts of prison abolition would be effective, and whether suicide decriminalization offers any lessons for how the prison abolition ethic could be applied to other crimes.

Fixing School Discipline to Cut Prison Admission

In my last post, I discussed restorative justice, law enforcement in schools, and why it was important we implement restorative justice practices. In this post, I will discuss programs which can reduce student entanglement in the justice system, reduce crime, and improve student outcomes. I have three main recommendations. First, I suggest expanding the eligibility requirements for pretrial diversion programs. Second, diversion programs should be designed to address the underlying causes of crime, repair harms, and prevent reoffending. Third, school discipline should be put back in the hands of school administrators to reduce the criminalization of acts on school campus. 

Expanding Diversion Programs

Pretrial diversion is a process that allows a defendant to have the charges against him dropped without having to enter a guilty plea. In California, a defendant with pending charges may, at the discretion of the prosecutor and judge, be required to participate in drug or alcohol education classes and follow a plan involving medical treatment and counseling. Only after a program is completed satisfactorily are the charges dropped. 

Current law limits eligibility for pretrial diversion. California Penal Code Section 1000 only applies to drug-related offenses, whereas Section 1001.36 extends it to cases where mental health is an issue, and Section 1001.80 to military veterans with PTSD. In any other situation, prospective defendants are not entitled to pretrial diversion under current law. According to the California Attorney General’s office, only 18% of youth misdemeanor arrests are for drug or alcohol related offenses. This means that only a small portion of cases qualify for pretrial diversion under these statutes. According to the same source, upwards of 55% of youth arrests are for violent or property offenses, usually simple assault and battery, theft, or defacing property. 

My suggestion is to change the law to expand eligibility to those offenses which constitute the bulk of arrests. The misdemeanor assault and battery, property crime, and status offenses are all potentially remediable by restorative justice programs (depending on the situation), and youth participation in the types of programs I discuss below can prevent the negative outcomes associated with prosecution and entry into the criminal justice system.

Restorative justice can also be applied to instances of violent crime in some cases, though it is more difficult and complicated. Restorative justice principles can be utilized to address the underlying causes of the crime, and, in cases where victim engagement is appropriate, can help the victims recover. For example, we already have victim-offender dialogues designed to engage the offender in developing empathy for victims they have harmed, to take responsibility for the act they committed, and to assist the victim in recovering. Though this tool is currently used after conviction, it can be utilized in diversion, as I discuss below. 

Due Process Rights

As I discussed in my last post, restorative justice draws criticism for subjecting somebody to obligations such as therapy, treatment, or community service without needing to first be convicted. Additionally, restorative programs also require offenders to be honest with many different people about what they did and why, to better aid in the creation of a plan to prevent reoffense in the future. However, without protections, a defendant’s honesty could easily be used later by prosecutors to secure a conviction in the event a restorative justice plan is not adhered to, but, unfortunately, teachers, therapists, doctors, and others involved may not be privy to how their well-intentioned work could disadvantage their patient as a defendant. 

Pretrial diversion programs, however, already avoid this issue with some statutory protections. Participation in diversion does not require a formal admission of guilt, and records of treatment are kept confidential and sealed once a program is completed. The existing protections are limited, as the current programs only address drug use and mental health treatment. But extending confidentiality to all professionals who are involved in a program, or otherwise preventing a defendant’s participation from disadvantaging her at trial could simultaneously ensure the efficacy of the program and protect a defendant’s due process rights. 

Ultimately, while restorative justice programs may place some burdens on the defendant without a conviction, the burden of a conviction and the social stigma it carries is a far greater burden in many cases. 

Example Youth Diversion Programs

Currently, there are only four counties in California with restorative justice-based diversion programs: Alameda, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Contra Costa. Alameda and San Francisco have programs which are based on the restorative principles I discussed in my previous post, while Contra Costa and LA counties’ programs are somewhat more limited. 

Alameda and San Francisco counties partner with Communityworks to run a Restorative Community Conferencing Program (RCCP). Counselors and program coordinators first meet with the victims of crime to assess their needs, then meet with the offending youth to begin counseling, developing empathy for those affected by crime, and planning to rebuild trust and repair harms. The specifics of the plan are customized to the stakeholders involved and their specific needs. Plans may involve victim conferencing, development non-criminal skills, community service, or other forms of case support (direct dialogue with victims or an apology letter, getting a job to help pay for damaged property, volunteering at school, et cetera). The point is that a plan created under the RCCP assesses the needs of the offender, victim, and community, then comes up with some method of holding the offending youth accountable.The program does so in a way that promotes the offender’s collaboration and investment in the community, rather than total removal and non-constructive punishment. Once an agreement is made and adhered to, the pending charges are dropped, nobody gets prosecuted, and, ideally, everybody is better off.

Contra Costa County’s pretrial diversion program is targeted at youths who have had multiple run-ins with law enforcement. Its program, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion ( LEAD) is modeled off of the Seattle-King County LEAD program which reduced rearrests by 58%. Like the RCCP, LEAD is a voluntary program where an offender may choose to participate rather than be prosecuted. However, because LEAD is based on criteria in the California Penal Code, it seems to be limited to drug use disorder and mental health assistance. The LA County program, Alternative Prosecution Program, is also limited to first-time misdemeanor cases, drug abuse disorder treatment, and mental health assistance. Contra Costa County and Los Angeles’ programs seem to be limited to people who fall into the scope of the statutes discussed above. 

Current diversion programs address important needs, since drugs, alcohol, and poor mental health can all play a significant role in a person becoming involved with the justice system. However, there are many other ways in which someone can become involved in the system, and the option of pre-trial diversion should be the rule rather than the exception. My suggestion is to modify the Penal Code Section 1001 to expand pre-trial diversion eligibility to those who could benefit from it but who may not meet the current law’s eligibility requirements. Second, any statewide program should be like those in San Francisco and Alameda counties. 

Teacher-led Restorative Justice

Finally, I want to address the issue of criminalization of activity on school campuses. One of the main issues with law enforcement on campus is that SRO’s have wide discretion to assess whether something is just typical problem behavior, or criminal behavior. They tend toward the latter as a result of the rise in “zero tolerance” school discipline policies. Officers may, at their discretion, let students off with warnings or arrest them and refer them to the DA’s office for prosecution. About 40,000 youths were arrested in California in 2018. Youth arrests are associated with a significantly increased likelihood of dropping out, suspension, expulsion, and future incarceration. 

Given these harms, I suggest we do two things. First, minor disciplinary issues should be handled by teachers, faculty, and other staff. Second, more serious behavior should be directly referred to the diversion programs described above. 

Direct referral is more efficient. If someone needs referral, why not cut out the middlemen? Why wait for assessment by law enforcement and prosecutors when teachers are, themselves, ready and able to look for troubling signs in student behavior and intervene? Instead of Student Resource Officers (SROs) and police referring students to the DA who then might refer them to a diversion program, I propose that teachers be able to refer students directly to diversion programs. 

Though  direct referrals may create some logistical difficulties, such programs may ultimately be more efficient than staffing programs at individual schools. A RAND study from the Pittsburgh School District showed that implementing a full-fledged restorative justice program in schools only provided some of the intended benefits–or no benefit–over schools which did not. The Pittsburgh program used professional development staff and ongoing teacher coaching to adopt eleven specific practices to use with students. Practices involved things like fair and transparent communication guidelines, student meeting circles to build empathy and understanding between students, and restorative conference meetings between teachers, students, family, and trained personnel. Some of the outcomes the study measured were suspension, academic performance, and student feelings of safety and community. The study showed that schools that implemented the restorative practices significantly reduced suspension rates and improved student feelings about their schools. The program did not, however, result in increased academic performance.

The Pittsburgh study had two limitations: first, the treatment group (schools with onsite restorative justice programs) had difficulties rolling out the program with all the intended personnel, and, second, the researchers did not have access to information about control group (schools with no change) interventions. Control group schools may have had some teachers resorting to restorative justice practices on their own, which would mitigate the perceived benefits in the treatment group.

While this study couldn’t find that a full-on restorative justice program would deliver the desired results, that isn’t to say restorative justice doesn’t work. On the contrary, it suggests that small changes by teachers and faculty deliver most of the benefits, without the need to resort to more highly trained people in every single school. If schools do not already have counselors and social workers at their disposal, then staffing and training its own restorative justice specialists is most likely less cost-efficient and less effective than being able to refer students to a county-level program. 

A better use of resources at the school level would involve training teachers to  resolve disputes interpersonally, to seek constructive and non-punitive results, and to look for signs that a youth may need help before it erupts into criminal behavior. Teachers should be trained to avoid “zero tolerance” mindsets and instead focus on principles such as fostering trust with adults and promoting positive peer influence. If teacher interventions are ineffective, teachers should be able to refer students to an outside program to work with offenders and community stakeholders to repair the harms of crime. 


California has already used pre-trial diversion programs to reduce convictions and recidivism, and we already have a statutory framework which protects defendants’ rights if they are able to participate in diversion programs. However, eligibility for pretrial diversion remains limited only to the least grievous offenses and are mainly focused on drug and mental health treatment. Restorative-justice-based programs hold potential to benefit a wider range of people, but only a few counties in the state have them at all. Accordingly, eligibility requirements should be extended to the majority of crimes committed by students, and restorative-justice-based programs should be made available statewide. And at the school level, it is perhaps not necessary to have complex programs with well trained staff and specific protocols unless the goal is to reduce suspensions. General restorative justice interventions by teachers may be sufficient to achieve better feelings of community and trust, and where those interventions fail to prevent crime, a county-level program would be more efficient and effective.

Alternatives to School Police Programs


In my last blog post, I demonstrated that the evidence supporting school police programs as a means of promoting school safety is inconclusive. I also discussed how increased criminalization for minor offenses as a result of a regular police presence in schools could harm students in the future. In this post, I will look at alternatives to school police programs: establishing conflict resolution practices and increasing the number of mental health professionals on staff. I will also address both the potential issues and the potential benefits related to implementing policies that focus on conflict resolution practices and mental health professionals.

Policy Proposal

In this blog post, I will use the policy recommendations made by the Dignity of Schools Campaign as a model for alternative policies to school police programs. The Dignity of Schools Campaign is “a coalition of over 100 organizations across 27 states working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.” The policy recommendations focus on ending the regular presence of law enforcement officers in schools, restricting the role of law enforcement called into schools, and creating safe schools through positive safety and discipline measures.

The first policy recommendation is to remove law enforcement personnel that are regularly assigned in and around a school or set of schools during regular school hours. Law enforcement personnel include School Resource Officers (SROs), police, security officers, and others who have specified powers: first, any person who has the power to arrest, detain, interrogate, question, fine, or ticket students on municipal code, juvenile, criminal, or immigration-related matters; second, any person who has the power to punish youth for violations of probation or parole; third, any person who carries any weapon, such as a firearm, baton, taser gun, rubber bullets, bean bags, mace, pepper spray, and handcuffs or other forms of restraint; and fourth, personnel who report to, are certified by, or receives training from a police department, or can report students to a gang database or other police. The recommendation also suggests that schools be required to prohibit any school staff from carrying the weapons described above.

The second policy recommendation is limiting the role of law enforcement in the rare cases when law enforcement can be called into schools. The recommendation proposes that all schools must adopt a publically accessible Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between schools and local police departments that limits the role of any law enforcement personnel who come in to contact with schools. An MOU would do this by allowing law enforcement to respond only to offenses where there is a real and immediate threat of serious physical injury, or where it is mandated by law that such offenses be referred to the criminal justice system. The MOU would also set strict limits on what law enforcement personnel can and cannot do when they are called to schools to respond to serious criminal matters. An MOU would also ensure the protection of students’ rights when law enforcement is called. If the police remove a student from school, the MOU would require a follow-up that addresses the root cause of the offense and a plan to support that student. The MOU would also require that all law enforcement personnel receive training before being assigned to respond to schools to ensure they are responding appropriately to youth. This training would include at least 60 hours of training, which would cover topics listed in the DSC Model Code on Education and Dignity. The recommendation would also require data collecting and monitoring of all police interactions with students, including calls to police for services, referrals to law enforcement, school-based arrests, tickets, and summons.

The third and final policy recommendation is to invest in school staff who are trained to ensure safe and positive school climates for learning and to build relationships with students. These staff would include community intervention workers, peacebuilders, behavior interventionists, transformative or restorative justice coordinators, school aides, and counselors. They would have the responsibility of monitoring school entrances and ensuring a welcoming environment, responding to the root causes of disruptive behaviors, preventing and intervening to stop conflicts among students, and addressing the health, well-being, and human rights of students. School districts would be responsible for providing on-going training and support to all school staff in positive approaches to school discipline and conflict resolution. The recommendation also suggests promoting youth and parent leadership within the school through leadership councils that have an integral role in creating, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating safe and supportive school climates. These leadership opportunities could include serving as restorative justice facilitators in the school or monitoring agreements between school districts and law enforcement. Finally, the recommendation suggests establishing district-level structures to coordinate support staff, provide support and coaching, and monitor the implementation of the policy recommendations provided.

Potential Benefit to Students

Policies that focus on conflict resolution practices and mental health professionals have the potential to improve the physical and psychological safety of our students and schools. School counselors, school psychologists, and school social workers serve a critical role in providing school-based mental health services. School counselors have specialized knowledge of curriculum and instruction and help screen students for the basic skills needed for a successful transition from youth to adulthood. School psychologists have a graduate degree in school psychology, which combines the disciplines of psychology and education. They typically have extensive knowledge of learning, motivation, behavior, childhood disabilities, assessment, evaluation, and school law. School social workers have master’s degrees in social work. They have special expertise in understanding family and community systems and linking students and their families with the community services that are essential for promoting student success. Because of their knowledge and skill, mental health professionals are able to support some of the needs of the students, such as emotional, mental, and social needs. When students have the support they need, it creates a school culture where students feel safe and empowered to report safety concerns, which is proven to be one of the most effective school safety strategies. In the aftermath of a crisis, school-employed mental health professionals can also provide supports that facilitate a return to normalcy.

Potential Issues

Despite the potential benefits of alternative policies to school police programs, teachers may be apprehensive about getting rid of school police programs and implementing new alternative policies. One reason teachers might be hesitant is that they are uncertain about what disciplinary measures the new guidelines might allow them to use. They may feel frustrated if these new policies are sprung on them without any training or support. Teachers also might feel that the policies place too much pressure on them to deal with students who present challenging or disruptive behavior. These issues can easily be fixed, however, by providing teachers with clear cut guidelines for who handles student misbehavior, proper training for how to implement the new policies best, and necessary support.


In conclusion, schools should implement policies that remove any law enforcement personnel from schools, limit the role of law enforcement in the rare cases when law enforcement can be called into schools, and employ more mental health professionals. The implementation of these alternative policies to school police programs can result in improving the overall well-being of students and promoting a safe school climate. While teachers may be hesitant to implement these new policies, with guidance and clear communication, their concerns can be easily managed.

Youth-to-Adulthood Universal Transitional Programs

In my last post, I discussed the effects of abuse and neglect on youth. I specifically talked about these effects as they relate to foster youth and a group I call foster-adjacent youth. Foster-adjacent youth are those raised in equally abusive, neglectful, or manipulative homes who lack financial support and/or community support, but who have never made contact with the foster care system. I suggest at the end of that post that a universal transitional program (UTP) should be offered to both foster youth and foster-adjacent youth in California to help aid them in their transition into adulthood. I suggested that these programs would help these youth become healthy adults who are capable of becoming successful students, employees, partners for marriage, and active members of the community.

Continue reading “Youth-to-Adulthood Universal Transitional Programs”

Effects of Abuse and Neglect


According to a report by the Children’s Bureau, child abuse and neglect may stunt the physical development of the child’s brain and lead to psychological problems, such as low self-esteem, which could later lead to high-risk behaviors, such as substance abuse. Children raised in abusive or neglectful homes are often, but not always, removed from their homes and placed in foster care until a court deems it safe to once again give the parents’ custody of their child. However, the foster care system has received backlash for the lack of resources foster youth receive and the lack of preparation for the transition into adulthood and independence. Over the past several years the foster care system in California has begun addressing many of the issues affecting youth in the foster care system, such as youth transitioning out of the foster care system and how to best support their transition into adulthood. Several nonprofit organizations have also begun to provide services to foster youth transitioning into adulthood, such as employment assistance, education assistance, and mentorships programs.

Continue reading “Effects of Abuse and Neglect”

Addressing Violent Crime as a Symptom of Toxic Masculinity


In my last post, I discussed how socially-constructed gender norms pressure boys and men to prove their masculinity by being powerful, dominant, and non-emotional. If they refuse or fail to do so, they can be victimized, stigmatized, or excluded from society. According to Masculine Gender Role Strain theory, men perpetrate violence to reclaim their sense of masculinity when they are not perceived to meet its expectations, or to discharge emotions brought by societal expectations of manhood. Because idealized masculinity, or hegemonic masculinity, deprives boys and men of social connectedness and healthy avenues for emotional expression, it must be confronted and redefined.  

In this post, I will examine the scope of violent crime committed by men and suggest ways to reduce such crime. Utilizing research on how to redirect potentially aggressive attitudes and behaviors in young males, I will make recommendations for programming to be administered to small groups of boys and young men in middle, elementary, and high schools. The programming will promote healthy personal and social development by giving participants an opportunity to reflect on sources and manifestations of toxic masculinity in their lives. It seeks to facilitate social connectedness through shared experiences related to the pressures of gender-normativity and encourage students to question the status quo. The goal of the programming is to instill a healthy sense-of-self among school-aged boys and men to arm them against the hazards of toxic masculinity. This may help ease the strain that perpetuates violent crime committed by men in the U.S.

                                                            Scope of the problem

Men are much more likely than women to be perpetrators of interpersonal violence. Interpersonal violence is the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against another person. In 2018, the United States saw 10,306 murders committed by men, which is more than seven times the number of murders committed by women. In 2012, 95% of the world’s 437,000 intentional homicide victims were killed by men. Each year, an estimated 25-38% of the world’s women experience violence perpetrated by male partners. In some parts of the world, up to 66% of women report physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by male partners at some point in their lives. According to the documentary The Feminist on Cellblock Y, men perpetrate 98% of mass shootings, 90% of homicides in which the identity of the killer is known, and  80% of all violent crimes in the United States.

An article on recommendations for violence intervention explains that that patriarchal organizations, which are those traditionally led by males, can promote toxic behavior. It says that American institutions that tend to be run by males foster particularly high rates of violence against women. For example, approximately 26% of female active U.S. military members experience physical intimate partner violence each year, compared to 4% of all U.S. women. Organizations such as fraternities and collegiate and professional sports teams have high rates of perpetration of sexual assault and rape-supportive attitudes. Even in settings where men already occupy positions of influence, toxic masculinity necessitates a showing of physical violence and control.

The article goes on to explain that while men generally perpetrate physical violence at higher rates than women, they are also more likely than women to be victims of it. In 2012, 81% of the 500,000 victims who died from interpersonal violence were men. This shows that men commit violence not only to show dominance over women, but is also to establish a hierarchy among men. Defending perceived or actual challenges to male power and respect, whether posed by a male or female, can serve to maintain or improve a man’s position in the social hierarchy. If we want to reduce violence, we must redefine what makes men powerful and worthy of respect.

Addressing the root causes of violence

While being born male does not automatically put someone at risk of being violent, risk factors, which are qualities or experiences that make someone more likely to commit violence, are typically more prevalent among males. Individual-level risk factors for committing intimate partner violence and youth violence include: rigid social beliefs about what is “masculine” and “feminine”, lack of job opportunities, low educational achievements, lack of non-violent problem-solving skills, witnessing violence, mental health problems, and substance abuse.  People are less likely to commit violence or be more resistant to violence when they are faced with protective factors. The CDC identifies protective factors to include: connection to a caring adult, developing inter-personal skills to solve problems nonviolently, access to mental health and substance abuse services, and connectedness to one’s community and school.

Communities that experience high rates of violence tend to have an overwhelming number of risk factors without an equal balance of protective factors. This means that children living in communities where there are many risk factors (e.g., high poverty, unemployment, and crime) are more likely than children living in other communities to experience violence. Investing in protective factors that increase peoples’ and communities’ resilience to violence may make it less likely that an entire community will experience violence. While violence is caused by a wide range of influences, this post addresses risk factors involving gender norms and social connectedness. Other risk factors, such as witnessing trauma, mental health problems, and substance abuse must be carefully addressed beyond the scope of gender transformative programming. Even still, such programming may foster conversations that help students recognize or seek help for other risk factors that affect them.  

What makes programming effective?

Gender-transformative programs may be a way to decrease violence by promoting several protective factors at once. Such programs seek to change gender norms at the individual and interpersonal level by providing a safe space for men to critically reflect upon and challenge norms of masculinities, the use of violence, and relationships with men, women and children. According to the American Psychological Association, removing power from negative masculine constructs and promoting a healthy masculine identity in childhood can cause a ripple effect that prevents the expression of violence in adulthood. This can be done through creating campaigns that endorse the healthy relationships between and among genders. Campaigns should reach multiple levels of social development and positively integrate boys and men into the dialogue. Changing culture can influence violent behavior. The challenge lies in navigating cultural transformation in school-aged boys.

Public health and social science experts from four universities in the UK came together to study violence prevention through social media. They facilitated small group discussions with people ages 15-19 to evaluate the effectiveness of social media campaigns in preventing interpersonal violence and abuse. Participants were asked to reflect on the messages they took away from the campaign content. The study found that anti-violence messages are most effective when tailored to the most likely perpetrators of interpersonal violence, in this case male youth. It also found that campaigns targeted at young boys must be positive, rather than blaming or alienating, and should use drama and narration to evoke an emotional response that assists with learning. Involving young people themselves in the creation and delivery of campaigns strengthens authenticity, as does delivering content through familiar characters and relevant stories.

Programming by example

Gender-transformative programming in schools can be created through modeling similar programs that already exist.  For example, the documentary The Feminist on Cellblock Y (click here for a short review) features inmates, many of whom are imprisoned for perpetrating violent crimes, who stand up against toxic masculinity while incarcerated.

While serving time in an all-male prison in Soledad, California, inmates choose to participate in a 12 week program called Success Stories. Success Stories is an inmate led group inspired by the short film “The Mask you Live in”, which illustrates the cycle of suffering that toxic masculinity perpetuates. Relying heavily on group collaboration, the program teaches that you do not have to be emotionless, invincible, or violent to be a successful man. The film and its discussion guide  can serve as curricular foundation for programming for middle school aged boys, allowing students to discuss its themes in relation to their own life experiences.

Success Stories explains toxic masculinity in a way that participants can understand and relate to. Beyond just lecturing or giving a formalized presentation on the topic, Success Stories allows participants to shape the program using their own voices. For example, participants are asked what it looks like for a man to embody traditional masculinity; defined as being powerful, dominant over women, and a provider. According to the inmates, successfully performing masculinity means being physically fit, strong, and willing and unafraid to fight. It means having women who respect you or being seen as a “pimp” and having a lot of money. Participants of Success Stories were asked to list “payoffs” of proving masculinity. They named glory, acceptance, pride, and self-esteem. They were also asked to identify its costs. In a sobering scene, one inmate stated blankly, “a life sentence”.

Understandings of features of toxic masculinity will inevitably vary based on the age and life experiences of participants. For young boys, for example, masculine dominance might mean setting the handball rules on the playground or not letting girls join a game. Payoffs to performing masculinity might include being chosen for a pick-up game of basketball, being elected class president, or achieving popularity as a teenager. Costs of masculinity might include being benched in a game, a scraped knee, hurt feelings, or a breakup. If programming is successful, it will never be a life sentence.

The discussions had by the men in Success Stories can be recreated in schools using curriculum detailed in a manual for group-facilitators written by Promundo. Promundo is an organization that engages with men, women, and children around the world to confront the harmful gender norms that underlie gender-based violence. One of its programs, Manhood 2.0, encourages young men in the United States to reflect critically about their gender identities within the particular contexts in which they are formed. It does this by hosting small group discussions that challenge participants to think and talk about gender beyond the rigid divisions of male and female, to value a diversity of gender expressions, and to build healthier attitudes, behaviors, and relationships, based on respect and equality. Promundo encourages consistent participation by framing the program as beneficial to participants. For example, it reminds them they are working to achieve “a peaceful life” and learning “how to be a better man”.

After participating in a 13-hour curriculum administered over the course of seven sessions, Manhood 2.0 participants report having more discussions with family and friends about topics such as “what it means to be a man”, feeling more comfortable discussing sexual health and experiencing greater social support. The Promundo manual encourages facilitators to direct personalized versions of  the program in their own communities. It suggests objectives, key messages, and materials and preparations needed for specified workshops. It also suggests how and when facilitators should solicit feedback from participants and facilitators can teach the program to other prospective leaders.

Bracing for challenge

The UK social media campaign study recognizes that while peer involvement is instrumental in attitudinal change towards social norms, the trust of young people can be difficult to elicit and retain. Psychologist Terry A. Kupers’ article on toxic masculinity as a barrier to mental health treatment in prisons discusses the challenges of encouraging men to utilize mental-health services and support groups in male-dominant settings. It is difficult to rely on voluntary attendance for the success of participation-based treatment in programs because male expressiveness and vulnerability is so stigmatized.  Kupers suggests clinicians in prison acknowledge resistance to treatment, show an understanding of why some inmates may be resistant to participate, establish authenticity by being realistic about what the client is open to achieving, and communicate with higher-ups about particular needs of individuals.

 Facilitators of gender-related programming in schools must find creative ways to overcome students’ reluctance to participate. Some students may not want to attend or contribute to discussions out for fear of ridicule or exclusion by peers. Leaders must allow for social bonding among participants before they can expect to discuss sensitive topics. The personality and delivery of the facilitator him/herself may influence how likely students are to connect with the program. While identity and flare of a program leader is difficult to standardize, it may be the most crucial element to its success. 


If designed and administered with intention, gender transformative programming can foster a sense of belonging and peaceful problem-solving among students and alleviate violent tendencies caused by toxic masculinity. Its success depends on how well programs can communicate messaging and retain attendance and participation. Programs like Success Stories and Manhood 2.0 show promise because they are contextually tailored to the needs and experiences of their participants.

Because the needs and experiences of school-aged American males differ so vastly, it is not practical to write a “one size fits all” program to support the necessary development of all demographics. Determining how to effectively partner with students in their self-exploration begins at the community level. Teachers should be coached to observe and identify potentially aggressive behaviors in their students. Schools may consider recruiting third party professionals or volunteers to facilitate programming so as not to impose on teachers’ ordinary responsibilities as educators. Teachers and facilitators should collaborate to modify existing programs, such as Success Stories or Manhood 2.0, to optimally benefit individual classrooms and students. Principles and methods must be shared widely among teachers, students, facilitators, and parents so that program goals can be tracked and understood by those by its overseers and beneficiaries alike. Surveys can be used to evaluate program successes and failures to allow for its improvement. Eventually, continued reflection and revision of programming may establish templates that apply loosely to particular age groups and demographics.

Reducing violent crime in the U.S. requires that potentially aggressive attitudes and behaviors in young males must be addressed early on. Gender transformative programming can help school-aged males form and maintain a healthy sense-of-self that goes beyond the confines of gender normativity. Inspiring boys and young men to act as leaders in confronting the hazards of toxic masculinity can alleviate suffering by victims and perpetrators of violence and unburden the American criminal justice system as a whole.

At-School Suspension and Detention Do Not Address the Root Cause of Misbehavior

My last post discussed the purpose of schools as described by California’s state constitution and courts. Using statutes and school policies regulating at-school suspension and detention, I compared the polices to the purpose of schools and suggested that detention and at-school suspensions should have educational value since they are administered in a school setting. Presently, I will explore whether detention and at-school suspension address the root cause of the students’ misbehavior, how this form of punishment affects a child’s mentality, and how that effect can lead to criminality. I will conclude this post with suggesting in policy changes that would give children the ability to continue to learn and develop during their time spent in detention or at-school suspension.

  1. Detention and at-school suspension do not address the root causes of misbehavior.

Students cannot leave their personal life and situations at the school gate. Financial problems, hunger, abuse, insecurities, learning disabilities (whether diagnosed or not), and/or other stressors students are suffering outside of school will follow them into the classroom. Students, unlike adults, may not have the words to express themselves and cannot choose how or when they can cope with their situations since their parents and school officials dictate most of their day. They must be at school by a certain time, cannot talk while teachers are teaching, cannot decide they need to take five minutes outside to clear their head, and many times are not allowed to express their point of view, especially when being disciplined. 

Often students misbehave because they are unable to express their needs or unable to find a way to cope with the problems they are facing in and out of school. For those struggling the most, schoolwork and learning may not be high on their needs list. Some students may skip school to fulfill their need for freedom, argue and fight with teachers or other students to satisfy a need for power and control, or focus more on their relationships with other children than on their schoolwork to meet their need for connections. There are many reasons for a student to misbehave and the problems mentioned in the following paragraphs are not exhaustive.

More than 11 million children in the United States are in a state of food insecurity. Without access to a consistent and healthy food supply, students are unable to develop healthily, which affects their performance and behavior in a classroom setting. Students, like all people, have a limited cognitive bandwidth. By spending their limited mental reserves on resources that they lack, hungry children focus on food, which can lead to neglect of other areas of life such as schoolwork. When kids are hungry, there is an increased possibility of behavioral issues like hyperactivity, aggression, or anxiety. When they are feeling that physical hunger, it impacts their emotional and mental well-being. Hunger can cause students to act out in the classroom or against their peers, which can lead to a student being disciplined. Trauma can also cause behavioral issues. Trauma exposure may lead to poor emotional regulation and strains the stress response system. This, in turn, can lead to impulsivity and poor emotional control. As a result, young people with trauma history are more likely to respond to subsequent stressful experiences with internalizing or externalizing behavioral problems. 

Social inadequacy, or the feeling of not being good enough, can also lead to bad behavior. Social inadequacy brings with it the feeling of inferiority, powerlessness, shame, and low self-esteem. The feeling of not being good enough can push a student to misbehave.They may act out passively by withdrawing or avoiding interaction, like refusing to complete a requested task or participate in an event. Finally, the feeling of frustration can cause a student to misbehave. Students feeling frustrated with themselves, school, or social life may not know how to constructively express their feelings and may not have the resources outside of the classroom to teach them healthy coping skills.Students might express their feelings through verbal outbursts, swearing, throwing things, and fighting.

None of the problems mentioned above are addressed by placing a student in detention or at-school suspension. These forms of discipline prioritize the needs of the teacher by removing the student from the general population making it easier for the teacher to teach. As a result, students are left to cope with the disciplinary actions using the same dysfunctional coping skills they were using when being removed from the classroom. Unable to communicate their needs, the students are rendered voiceless in an empty room.

2. Punishment harms students learning outcomes

At-school suspensions can last anywhere from 1-5 days, while detention consists of about an hour. At-school suspension means the student is placed in a room away from other students for the whole time they are suspended. This means that a student will be subjected to isolation in an empty room instead of engaging with peers and their teacher in the classroom. They are missing instruction time and have to catch up with the learning materials on their own. If they are already struggling with keeping up with the material in any class, this isolation puts them at least one more lecture behind. Detention, on the other hand, does not pull the student out of instruction time. Since it is usually conducted for an hour after school or during the lunch period, students are not forced to experience the academic disadvantaged caused by at-school suspension. 

Both at-school suspension and detention are not effective at changing behavior; instead, they establish punishments and create resentment.Sometimes students are given detention or at-school suspensions in front of the whole class with little to no room to explain their side of the story.They are removed from their normal environment and ostracized from their peers all at the hands of the teacher.This harms the student-teacher relationship by creating mistrust, which in turn may manifest as a refusal to follow directions or creating additional class disruption.

All of the feelings could create a hostile school social climate. The school social climate is made up of the relationships among students and school staff, students’ level of integration into the school community, and the rules governing students and staff behaviors. In a positive school social climate, students would feel empowered to use their voices and trust that they are being treated with respect by teachers, administrators, and staff. In a hostile school social climate, students would feel that teachers, administrators, and staff do not care about the students and do not allow the students to voice their concerns or needs. This would cause a feeling of alienation and would lead students to distance themselves from school, creating a poor educational outcome.

3. Poor educational outcomes are more likely to lead to criminality. 

By the time individuals find themselves in the criminal justice system, most have already experienced a profound degree of alienation stemming from educational disenfranchisement. Among prisoners, 42% have a history of being permanently excluded from school. Students that disengage from school are more likely to drop out, which could lead to criminality.

There is no clear indication, or answer, on why someone might break a law. However, statistically, prison inmates and former prison inmates are twice as likely to have no high school credential and formerly incarcerated people are 8 times less likely to complete college compared to the general public. Low-skilled jobs have largely disappeared, creating a higher unemployment rate for people with basic educations. When someone is not able to buy the basics needed to survive, they might turn to illicit work. This does not mean that people with low financial recourses will become criminals. However, schooling doesincrease the returns to legitimate work, raising the opportunity costs of illicit work. 

4. Schools should implement new school policies that address the root cause of misbehavior. 

During my research, I found an article by Howard M. Knoff, describing how school discipline should be administered. I agree with his recommendations. Howard M. Knoff is the creator and Director of Project ACHIEVE, a former Professor of School Psychology at the University of South Florida (Tampa, FL), and Director of its School Psychology Program. He states that discipline must be conceptualized as a problem solving process which includes problem identification, problem solving analysis, intervention, and evaluation

Administrators and teachers need to first identify the problem. The specific acts of misbehavior the student is exhibiting seems like the easiest problem to identify. For example, the student is disrupting class, is defying the teacher, does not listen, etc. However, teachers and administrators should seek to understand why the misbehavior is occurring. Is the student struggling with the class? Is the student having trouble at home? What is causing the student to behave like that? To do this the teachers and administrators must communicate with the student. Currently, this communication is missing. Without communication, the student does not have a voice, and the teachers act without fully understanding the student’s behavior. 

When a teacher or administrator identifies the root cause of misbehavior then they know what issues need to be solved and are able to evaluate what is the best course of action.If the student is disruptive to disguise that they are struggling in the class, it would not be in the best interest of the student to be removed from instruction time to sit quietly in an empty room.The student would probably benefit from a more constructive approach through one on one tutoring.If the student is having problems in their home, they would more likely benefit from talking to a counselor.For other reasons, there would be other avenues of behavioral intervention that would benefit the student more than sitting quietly in an empty room.

After identifying the problem, the teacher or administrator needs to intervene. Once the teachers or administrators know the root cause and find the action that would benefit the student, they should act on it. If the student is going to be given detention or at-school suspension, that room should not be quiet and empty. The students struggling with classes should be tutored. The students that seem to have problems outside the school should be given the time to talk to counselors.  At-school suspension and detention should be catered to the real needs of the students rather than the convenience of the teachers.

Finally, schools should evaluate the results. There could be two ways of evaluating the results, through school discipline data or criminal conviction data. School discipline includes detention, at-school suspensions, out of school suspensions, and expulsion. Detention is one of the disciplining methods with the least amount of data. We can start collecting data when we implement the changes, but the data will not be a good indicator if the new implementations are working or not. There is more data collected in at-school suspensions, out of school suspensions, and expulsions. If there is a decline in all of them, then we could say the new policies are working. A decrease in criminal convictions could also indicate that students are no longer being pushed through the school-to-prison pipeline. However, there are various reasons why conviction rates can go up or down.

The new policy would add more work to schoolteachers and administrators, but we owe it to the children of California to provide a space that will promote intellectual improvement.

Restorative Justice: Where We Are, and Where We Need to Go

In recent years, the criminal justice system has become more and more intertwined with the educational system. An increase of policing and an outsourcing of school discipline to the criminal justice system has led, unsurprisingly, to the criminalization of behaviors that used to be resolved by school staff. Student Resource Officers or “SRO’s” are routinely stationed on school campuses for the purpose of policing students, leading to a direct line between schools and the justice system. This phenomenon is so pervasive that it is referred to as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’. The drawbacks of this punitive system are immensely harmful to individuals who get caught up in it. In this post I will define restorative justice, explain why we should use it to remodel our existing policies surrounding punishment in schools, and address some critiques of restorative justice. In my next post I will dive more in depth into existing practices, and provide specific policies to promote restoration and decrease punishment in schools.

What is Restorative Justice? 

One difficulty in discussing restorative justice, and policy stemming from it, is that it is a very broad term which is often used to describe a wide range of specific practices. The version of restorative justice I discuss here is the framework put forward in The Little Book of Restorative Justice, by Howard Zehr. I choose this framework because it highlights some of the structural issues in the criminal justice system and what we need to change in how we think about punishment. 

In the traditional criminal justice setting, crime is defined by the laws which have been broken. An act violating the letter of the law is a crime because the legislature has deemed it so. Similarly, a court metes out a punishment deemed appropriate by statute or by the presiding judge (in jurisdictions where they are given that discretion). Through this lens, Zehr concludes the criminal justice system is concerned only with three things: proving that a criminal act has occurred, identifying the offender, and inflicting punishment. 

In contrast to those three goals, restorative justice follows principles of engaging the victim, offender, and community in repairing the harms done by crime, addressing the underlying causes of crime, and restoring or improving the integrity of the community. Focusing on these goals facilitates the victim’s recovery from trauma or injury he or she endured, as well as promotes rehabilitation and mutual understanding. For example, victim-offender dialogues are a tool already employed  by California for victims of crime to be heard and get answers from offenders. It also gives offenders an opportunity to tell their story, take responsibility, and make amends with the victim.

When putting together any course of remedial action, Zehr puts forward these questions as a framework: “who has been hurt and what are their needs?” “Whose obligations are these?” “Why did this happen?” “Who has a stake in this situation?” and, “What is an appropriate course of action to repair harm and prevent future offense?” That final question necessitates flexibility in approaches to restorative justice. Dialogue can be helpful or harmful depending on the people involved. Some cases of domestic abuse or violence may be exacerbated, rather than helped, by a confrontation between victim and offender. 

It is also worth noting what Restorative Justice is not. Restorative justice is not a total replacement for the criminal justice system. There will always be individuals who inflict harm upon others, deny guilt, or do not want to participate in repairing the harm they have done. In these cases, society necessarily needs a system which seeks to establish truth and guilt, which is what the criminal justice system is equipped to do. The criminal justice system sometimes possesses restorative elements. In many cases the punishment may be tied quite heavily to the offender’s history and status, rather than the criminal act itself. Repeat offenders may face additional punishment due to a history of the same behavior. In other cases, punishments may indeed have a remedial focus, such as driver’s training after an infraction, Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), or other rehabilitation programs after alcohol or drug offenses. Those rehabilitative programs are partially restorative because their focus is on reintegration into society. The purpose of A.A. or driver’s training is to help the individual overcome their addiction or to refresh their knowledge of proper driving practices. I say they are only partially restorative because they are also inflicted as a punishment, regardless of willingness to participate, but the goal of reintegration and reducing reoffending is where there is some overlap. 

The major difference between restorative justice and retributive justice is what outcomes each system is focused on. Under Zehr’s framework, figuring out how to return to society is part of making amends to the community and a central part of recovery for victims and offenders. The criminal justice system differs, however, because its central focus is inflicting punishment for a specific act that has been committed, which leads to more one-size-fits-all type programs, even where they have a restorative element to them. 

Guilt, Due Process, and the System we Have

UNLV Professor Eve Hanan states quite succinctly some concerns about restorative justice and due process rights that should be addressed. She argues that restorative justice disadvantages prospective defendants and allows the state to  “put its thumb on the scales.” It does this by requiring offenders to admit they have done something wrong, or plead guilty, rather than force the State to prove that they are guilty of an offense. She argues that this puts an ‘assumption of guilt’ on the defendant, rather than an assumption of innocence until proven guilty, and harms their right to due process. 

Instead, she advocates for a mediation and negotiation process involving lawyers and a neutral arbiter. She argues that the threat of prosecution is so coercive that people may readily admit guilt to participate in any program which results in a dismissal, rather than actually putting the burden on the State to prove them guilty first. To which I say, that already happens!, except rather than participating in negotiations or constructive programs, most of those who take pleas are merely subject to fines or incarceration. They do so because the cost of going to trial or the risk of losing the trial is greater than the cost of accepting a plea deal. This is known as the “trial penalty” and it also puts its thumb on the scale of justice in exactly the same way: by making the potential consequences of fighting for your rights more costly than admitting guilt. Implementing restorative justice-based diversion programs may at least lead to constructive outcomes for victims and offenders, while preventing less destructive outcomes for people who are innocent, yet feel pressured to take a plea.  

Cases where there is overwhelming evidence of guilt may dissuade the State from participating in negotiations in any case, resulting in the same imbalance of bargaining power in the status quo. At least when pre-trial diversion is used, the amount of evidence to establish guilt is irrelevant when an offender is willing to participate in mending the harms inflicted on the victim. So long as diversion programs are required to be an option a defendant may accept, the determining factor would be a defendant’s willingness to cooperate, rather than prosecutorial discretion based on the strength of the case. 

Hanan also critiques the “assumption of guilt” required by many restorative justice based programs. The “assumption of guilt” for restorative justice arises from a need for offenders to want to cooperate in the first place and to take responsibility for what they have actually done. Those wrongly accused would not want to take responsibility for something they did not do. Nonetheless, if pressured to participate in a diversion program, at best, it would not be constructive and at worst, may still elicit false admissions of guilt. That is a problem if the goal of restorative justice is, in part, getting to the truth of the matter. I don’t have a good answer for how to eliminate this imbalance, nor will diversion programs structured in this way solve it. This imbalance of bargaining power pressuring false confessions out of defendants is a big issue, but it is outside the scope of this post. 

What about schools? 

One place that Restorative Justice has gained some traction is in schools. Part of the reason for this is the increased policing of school campuses. Until just a couple of months ago, there were more police in schools than ever before. According to a report by the ACLU, referrals to law enforcement went up by 44% in 2015-2016. One program which drew the attention of the ACLU, and resulted in a class action lawsuit, was the Youth Accountability Team in Riverside County, CA. The program subjected students to searches, unannounced home visitations, restrictions on who they could speak to, curfews, additional schoolwork, community service, and more. While these sorts of interventions may be applied in a restorative justice setting, the students were merely required to do it if they were deemed “at risk,”  even just showing signs of struggling in classes. These restrictions would be enforced based on students’ characteristics, regardless of their actual needs or any crime commission.

More generally, there is evidence to show that arrests and referrals to law enforcement in schools have been declining over the past two years. Part of this is a trend where SRO’s initially tend to increase reporting to law enforcement in the short term. And there is some evidence to show that SRO’s are effective in deterring crime in schools over the longer term, but there is some debate over whether that is true, or whether SRO’s reduce crime at all, or whether they even increase it

At best, even if it is effective, it comes with a cost to the students’ education and school administrators’ autonomy: it is unnecessarily punitive in most cases and results in poorer outcomes for students who do enter the justice system. But, at worst, it is both harmful and counterproductive to have SRO’s on campuses. Which is to say, if arrests and referrals may reduce crime in schools over the long term, the indirect consequences upon learning need to be considered. While children may benefit from less crime occurring on campus, the children who become entangled in the justice system do not. 

This was the state of how enforcement was handled at schools prior to the shelter-in-place order. Unfortunately, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, schools have now gone remote, and SRO’s aren’t an issue while students are at home. However, schools would be well advised to do what they can in shutting off the school-to-prison-pipeline. Once students can return to school, as with many other facets of our society, we need a new normal. 

The pandemic makes the way we do punishment more dangerous, and by extension, makes the consequences of students becoming entangled with the justice system much more severe. Prisons and jails have become more adverse to the health of those incarcerated. As the rate of prisoner infections increases exponentially, testing in California prisons remains low. When it is conducted, testing tends to reveal mass infections when it is done in prisons. And if nothing is done to reduce the likelihood of students being sent to these places, they will be more likely to develop health issues. 

Reduction of inmate populations by preventing entry into the system, while also reducing offenses or re-offenses, will promote safety and better serve the public interest by allowing more people to reintegrate into their communities. Taking disciplinary matters out of the hands of SRO’s and putting them back in the hands of school administrators via restorative justice programs will go a long way toward protecting public safety. Restorative justice programs with a focus on meeting the needs of victims, offenders, and communities promotes learning and feelings of school safety, without resorting to the legal system.

In my next post, I will discuss more about these constructive, restorative-justice-based programs in California, which may be applied after students are referred to law enforcement. I will also discuss how schools may go about regaining autonomy in handling disciplinary matters, use restorative justice to handle discipline, and improve and student outcomes. 

Access to Health Care and Criminal Justice Reform – Part 2

“America’s health care system is neither healthy, caring, nor a system.” – Walter Cronkite

A Universal Wraparound Program Available to all Minors Would Break the Cycle of Poor Health, Poverty, and Incarceration.

Too many people fall victim to cycles of poor health, poverty, and incarceration. In this post, I will demonstrate the ways in which the provision of universal wraparound health care services for minors is the best way to break this cycle.

Wraparound services are comprehensive, integrated, community-centered health care services, and meet all four components of sufficient health care access –– coverage, services, timeliness, and workforce. Thus, they address all of the factors contributing to poor health. The National Wraparound Initiative (NWI) service model, combined with the National Wraparound Implementation Center’s (NWIC) implementation strategy, is the ideal model from which a comprehensive, universal health care system for all children should be built.

I am proposing universal wraparound health care services for all individuals in the U.S. from birth until they reach 18 years of age. This will entail providing a health care team to every minor in the U.S. This team will address, at minimum, the wellness needs of every child in the U.S., including physical, emotional, intellectual, social, occupational, and spiritual needs, where appropriate and desired. Wellness needs, however, will act as the floor, not the ceiling, as my program will be modeled on the NWI’s program.

This program will not be means-tested but will require a significant new tax. This tax should be levied progressively against higher-income individuals and families. Within the program itself, efficacy will be measured by the NWI and NWIC’s evaluation protocols. The external success of this program, however, will be measured by the reduction in use of emergency health care services, decrease in preventable disease and associated comorbidities, lower rates of intergenerational poverty, and reduction in future levels of incarceration.

Developing a modified model of wraparound services that is available to all minors would be effective because early intervention is a proven generator of long-term socioeconomic benefits. These benefits will accrue to individuals and society. Individuals will experience better health, economic, and carceral outcomes. Society will benefit through long-term savings on various public programs and institutions. While a universal wraparound program would require enormous front-end investments, the benefits on the back-end could be transformative for individuals and save taxpayers trillions of dollars.

The Case for Smaller Class Sizes

Kindergarten through third grade students taught in classrooms of no more than 20 students learn more and are more academically and socially engaged. Such advantages are even more pronounced for at-risk students, specifically minority students from low-income homes, and English as a second language students.

Small class size is vital to student success in early grades as students face a great deal of confusion upon entering school. In addition to state-mandated learning, children need to learn how to cooperate with others, learn how to learn, and how to get organized to become students. Students come from diverse backgrounds and many need help paying attention, completing tasks, and engaging in appropriate behavior. 

Reforms are needed to better build the necessary student-teacher relationship that is vital to a student’s success. Students who perceive that teachers care about them individually put forth more effort at school. As mentioned previously, a teacher in a smaller class can spend more individualized time with each student. These interactions will empower the teacher to care more for the student, while simultaneously allowing the student to notice their teacher caring. As such, the student will begin to recognize that investing in school is likely to pay off, and continue putting forth greater efforts. The benefits of this student-teacher relationship apply for at-risk students as well. If the relationship fails to form, at-risk students are more likely to look elsewhere to fill that void. These alternatives could lead to entry into the criminal justice system. These alternative activities would be more attractive to at-risk students if they believe investing in school is unlikely to pay off.

Large bureaucratic schools that emphasize compliance, control, and orderliness contribute to a sense of alienation, apathy, and isolation. This environment furthers the educational inequality gap; students that typically succeed have positive self-esteem and support from their families. Neglected and rejected children with lower self-esteem become a high risk for “failure, dropping out of school, joining gangs, and/or becoming substance abusers.”

As established previously, I am using the Good Lives Model (GLM) to explain these results, focusing specifically on the primary human goods of Community and Excellence in Work Satisfying a student’s need for Community within the school will result in increased student achievement, which will satisfy the primary human good of Excellence in Work. It is imperative that schools and our education system take these needed steps for the success of our students and society. Students, especially at-risk students, would realize that investing in school would be worth the effort, and less likely to turn to alternatives that may lie outside the law.

In this post, I will review evidence from several pilot projects that establish a link between educational attainment and small class sizes (or equivalent). These programs operate to instill a sense of belonging in students (Community) through individualized attention and a relationship with the teacher, which leads to Excellence in Work.

Project Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (“STAR”) split over 7,000 Tennesee students into three class sizes: small (13-17 students), regular (22-25 students), and regular-with-aide (22-25 students with full-time teacher’s aide). Selected students attended their assigned class from kindergarten through third grade. Data on those students was collected while they were in 8th, 9th, and 10th grade. The data showed students who were assigned to smaller classes were more likely to pass the English portion of the Tennessee Competency Examination (TCE—a mandatory test to graduate high school). The same trend was true for the math portion of the TCE. The study also revealed that 12-19% of the students who were in regular and regular-with-aide classes had been retained in at least one prior grade level, as compared to only 8% of former small class students. As many colleges and universities require high school students to take foreign language classes, the study used this factor as an indicator of future schooling and found that significantly more small class students enrolled in such classes — 26% more for students from rural areas and 20% for students from the inner-city.

After observing the positive effects from Project STAR, Tennessee policy makers decided to implement the small class program in a cost-effective manner by focusing on school districts where children were at the highest risk of falling behind — districts with the lowest per-capita income. These districts have raised their yearly ranking in arithmetic and reading from far below the state average to above average. This continued success demonstrates the importance of small class sizes and their positive outcomes.

Following the success of Project STAR, Wisconsin conducted a similar study — Project Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (“SAGE”). Project SAGE reviewed the effects of four reform initiatives: (1) reduction of pupil-teacher ratio in classrooms to 15:1; (2) establishment of “lighted schoolhouses” that are open longer than the traditional school day; (3) development of rigorous curricula; and (4) refinement of staff development and professional accountability systems to support the class size reduction program. As Project SAGE changed four variables at once, it is more difficult to identify a causal chain between results and smaller class sizes. Still, three of the four variables appear to be directly related to smaller class sizes, so it can provide insight on the importance of small class size as a foundation for other reforms. 

SAGE teachers that were interviewed unanimously agreed that class disciplinary actions were greatly reduced, if not eliminated, due to the small class size. They speculated that fewer discipline problems occurred due to the family-like atmosphere that developed in smaller classes. If misbehavior did arise, the teachers said it was noticed immediately and could be handled immediately. Furthermore, teachers reported that the students were on-task, attentive, and involved. These positive environments led to student achievement that was discussed earlier. 

All interviewed SAGE teachers agreed that the small class size allowed them to know the strengths and weaknesses of each student due to increased one-on-one time. This form of individualized teaching benefits all students, but teachers believe it has an increased benefit for poorer or struggling students, shy students, and students with exceptional needs. This individualized attention satisfied the student’s sense of Community by establishing a student-teacher relationship. The smaller class sizes during early education also empowered teachers to address learning and behavioral problems earlier, instead of waiting for the student to be able to communicate it later. This allowed the teachers to customize their approach to each student’s needs, thereby promoting and satisfying Excellence in Work.

Students within Project SAGE were compared to other students through testing of Reading, Language Arts, and Math from first through third grade. By second grade, SAGE students had significantly outscored non-SAGE students in Language Arts and Math. More importantly, the SAGE initiative reduced the achievement gap between white and African American students while the gap increased in non-SAGE schools. It is also important to note that schools had multiple options to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio including regular small classes, team-teacher classes (2-3 teachers to maintain 15:1 ratio), shared space (regular class with temporary wall in middle and class on either side), and floating teacher strategies. Regardless of which strategy was implemented, similar positive results in student achievement were obtained.

Project SAGE also assessed the long term impacts of the program and found that SAGE students had higher probabilities of not dropping out of school as compared to non-SAGE students. Furthermore, African American students that qualified for free or reduced price lunch while in SAGE had higher probabilities of completing high school. 

Smaller Class Sizes Should Be Prioritized Over Increased Teacher Quality 

While there is little question that education should be reformed in some way, many argue that reducing class size is not worth the cost. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, advocates for increasing the quality of the teacher over reducing class size: “You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas having class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.” This argument has its appeal, as reducing class size nationwide would increase the needed number of classrooms and teachers and cost a considerable amount.  However, Gladwell’s proposed solution fails to square with reality in several ways. 

Gladwell’s proposed solution fails to incorporate an important aspect of student success: belonging. GLM provides a list of primary human goods in which all individuals strive to satisfy. As I have established, our current education system fails to satisfy two of these goods: Community and Excellence in Work. Gladwell’s proposed reforms also fail to account for Community and would result in the same outcomes. Even a teacher of higher quality is limited by the amount of time in a school day. They would not be able to give students in larger classes the individualized attention to build a student-teacher relationship for all students. As such, the students will experience the same lack of belonging from school and look elsewhere.

It should go without saying that there is no way the top 15% of teachers would be able to teach all students in America. It also isn’t clear how teachers would be ranked to be considered in the eighty-fifth percentile. Reducing class sizes is a policy that can be applied nationwide and benefit every student. Focusing solely on high quality teachers would result in a system with even more inequality and greater education gap. If somehow only the top 15% of teachers were selected to teach, what would be the incentive for students to be future teachers? This highly-competitive selection process would begin to dwindle down the selection pool, and deter any future teacher due to job insecurity.

The relative salaries of good teachers versus average teachers warrants a separate discussion, which I will not do here. For our purposes, it is important to notice that Gladwell is viewing costs in a very economical way. In this argument, Gladwell treats education as a box that a student checks upon completion. He compares said output by the amount of money it would take to achieve it. The policy of reducing class sizes shifts the focus away from money towards what the student obtains from our education system. Every school has good and less than good teachers. Even teachers in the eighty-fifth percentile most likely had teachers that were between average and bad. Reviewing how those students became the top 15% of their field is a better recipe for success than just restricting the field to them. Reducing class size has shown improved student achievement which could propel students to this percentile.  It has been further established that tightening standards (certification standards, education levels, etc.) for teachers to raise the quality level is unlikely to succeed as much of a teacher’s growth occurs on the job.

Insights From the Perry Preschool Project

The Perry Preschool Project (“PPP”) established several positive outcomes associated with school reforms, including increased individualized attention. While it is unclear if PPP capped class sizes, the project did require the teacher to conduct a home visit of each child every week. Each home visit would last 1.5 hours. This unique tutor-like experience established a teacher-student relationship similar to those in smaller classes. As such, we can take inspiration from the results of the PPP. Taken together, these projects establish that satisfying a student’s need for Community through a sense of belonging is the key to a decreased chance of entering the criminal justice system.

Students that participated in the PPP significantly outperformed non-PPP students in several educational measures. Most notably, the program group had completed a significantly higher level of schooling by age 17 and had a higher rate of high school graduation. The positive outcomes were not solely limited to education. Delinquency and crime rates for PPP students were significantly lower, while lifetime earnings were higher.

The same positives of the PPP would be seen on a larger scale if classes in kindergarten through third grade were limited to 15 students. Doing so would empower students and teachers to form the important relationship that builds student achievement. From these new classrooms, the students’ sense of belonging, and Community, will be satisfied. They will be less likely to find Community elsewhere. 

How the United States educates our elementary students currently falls far short. Reducing the class sizes of primary schools to a maximum of 15 students would solve much of this inequality by fulfilling two necessary primary human goods of the GLM: Community and Excellence in Work. Decreasing class size during a student’s formative years has a lasting effect throughout the remainder of the student’s education. Inequalities exist in practically every aspect of American life. Education should be “the great equalizer” that works to close these gaps and propel students into successful, law-abiding citizens.

“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” – Victor Hugo