Criminal Justice Bill Tackles ‘School-To-Prison Pipeline’

Georgia lawmakers are considering a criminal justice reform package that includes changes to school disciplinary procedures.

Child advocates say current policies push too many kids out of school into the juvenile justice system for nonviolent offenses and disproportionately affect students of color.

The state overhauled its juvenile justice system in 2013, with reforms focusing on community-based alternatives for juvenile offenders and keeping nonviolent offenders out of youth detention facilities.

"This now is seen as the next wave [of continuing reforms]," said Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center. 

SB 367 would enact reforms recommended this year by the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice, which said in its report that “most young offenders outgrow delinquent and criminal behavior with increased involvement in school and work."

"[Y]et schools are one of the largest referral sources for delinquency complaints filed in the juvenile courts,” the report said. 

The proposal would require local school boards to establish a system of “progressive discipline” before filing a complaint against a student for "disrupting a public school."  

“They are encouraging the use of educational approaches to resolve discipline problems in school as opposed to defaulting to exclusionary practices like suspension and expulsion and complaints being made with the juvenile court,” Carter said of the recommendations. 

School boards would also be required to show that they engaged with the parent of a student to resolve a problem before court intervention. 

The proposal would also require minimum qualifications for hearing officers in school discipline cases and require local school systems to clarify the roles of law enforcement officers its assigns or employs.  

According to data compiled by the Georgia Legal Services Program, 50 percent of students expelled in Georgia in the 2011-2012 school year were African-American. African Americans represented 37 percent of students enrolled. 

Marlyn Tillman, co-founder of Gwinnett SToPP, a parent advocacy group to stop the “school to prison pipeline,” said the changes are long overdue. Her son was suspended in the 10th grade for a T-shirt interpreted by the school as being gang-related. 

"To treat things like a zero-tolerance or to be overly punitive on everything is just not good,” Tillman said. "It's not healthy for our state, it's not healthy for our community and it's not sustainable."

The bill will have to pass both the Senate and the House, and obtain a signature from Gov. Nathan Deal to become law.