Teen incarcerated over schoolwork shows the ‘devaluation of Black lives’: University professor

While school districts all over the country grapple with how to best educate youth this upcoming academic year during a global pandemic, one Michigan teen sits in a juvenile detention center with no prospect of returning to in-person or remote learning any time soon. The 15-year-old, identified only as Grace, has been in jail since May because she violated the terms of her probation by not completing her online coursework. “That's just a total devaluation of Black lives,” said Shaun Gabbidon, professor of criminal justice at Penn State Harrisburg.

Video Transcript

- Grace for Grace.

- Grace for Grace. Grace for Grace.

SHAUN GABBIDON: I'm Shaun Gabbidon. I'm the distinguished professor of criminal justice at Penn State at Harrisburg. For not doing your schoolwork to get a probation violation, especially given the times when we're trying to keep people out of institutions, I mean, it's just really, really absurd to some extent. But it's not absurd if you can kind of contextualize the way in which these institutions have worked for some time in terms of incarcerating black and brown people.

OJMARRH MITCHELL: My name is Ojmarrh Mitchell. I'm associate professor at Arizona State University in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. We're in the midst of a pandemic. A lot of people are having difficulties adjusting. The fact that a judge would put a young kid into a secure facility during a pandemic where we know the rate of transmission is through the roof for not completing a homework assignment or participating in class is ridiculous.

But if you just take a step back and ask yourself even if we weren't having a pandemic, is this reasonable? Right, that's-- to me, that's almost a bigger issue. You're telling me this judge routinely by the sounds of it puts people into secure facilities for doing or not doing minor things.

SHAUN GABBIDON: It just reeks of, well, this life is one in which we can do something like this, whereas other lives we wouldn't do that. And that's just a total devaluation of the black lives. And we see this in countless other areas of the justice system, countless other areas in terms of lawmaking, where we will do things and these things will impact disproportionately minorities.

So if we're only taking these type of actions with minority youth, when you go and look at the statistics, you'll say oh my gosh, another one coming into the system. But these are people. These are youth. You have to look at, well, why is this person coming into the system?

But we don't really tend to care about that. The system just continuously brings them in and sort of moves them through the system without sort of understanding what this does.

OJMARRH MITCHELL: Once you have a criminal record, it follows you. It follows you in a whole bunch of different ways. Electronically people can access your criminal history information very easily, increasingly easy. It's hard to delete it once it gets out there into the world.

People use those records for student loans eligibility, for educational opportunities. Housing is a big one. If you a criminal record, you can't live in certain buildings, complexes, areas, employment. And then there are the squishy things that are hard to measure.

But when people know that you have a criminal record, you've been incarcerated, they may not want to associate with you.

SHAUN GABBIDON: We know that when the more people have contact with the system, the more there's likely to be a bad outcome. It doesn't necessarily help them. So we should be doing everything we can to keep people out of the system, especially in a pandemic where we have-- we know these institutions harbor the virus in some respect.

OJMARRH MITCHELL: Well, I don't have just college students last semester. I have PhD students. So these are the students who are the most motivated, right?

And they had problems adjusting. I had problems adjusting. It was a fiasco. But we constantly changed what we were going to do to fit the situation and make the best of the situation.

And I think it turned out reasonably well. But it was difficult for even the most motivated people.

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