On the evening of Wednesday, April 25th, the Widener Journal of Law, Economics & Race
sponsored an enlightening symposium titled “The School-to-Prison Pipeline: What are we doing to our children?” that examined how the current systems for adjudicating childhood offenses are failing those same children and society as a whole.
WJLER Assistant Editor-in-Chief Jana DiCosmo, who organized the program, opened with a welcome and then introduced each of the six speakers, beginning with Matthew W. Burris, J.D. of the University of Mississippi School of Law. Burris wrote “Mississippi and the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” which appeared in the 2011 volume of the Widener Journal of Law, Economics & Race and served as the inspiration for the symposium topic.
Mr. Burris opened the discussion with a brief consideration of some of the points he addressed in the article. He discussed the amount of money that Mississippi spends to detain a child in a juvenile detention facility and contrasted that with the significantly smaller amount spent on education on a per-child basis. He closed by asking, “What are we doing? Who are we doing it to, and what does it cost?”
Joining Burris on the panel were: John A. Ferzetti, Esq., a New Jersey criminal defense attorney and former Salem County, NJ prosecutor; Patricia Dailey Lewis
, Deputy Attorney General and Director of the Family Division for the Delaware Department of Justice and a Widener Law adjunct professor; Daniel Lang, Esq., a 2011 Widener Law graduate and currently a Skadden Fellow working as a staff attorney with Delaware Community Legal Aid Society; Gregg Volz, Esq., Stoneleigh Foundation Fellow and Pennsylvania Youth Courts Advocate; and Lisa Rastelli, Esq. ’02, Assistant Salem County, NJ prosecutor.
“Children don’t become juvenile delinquents in a vacuum,” said Ferzetti as he discussed some of his work with juvenile clients following an informative rundown of how juvenile offenders are dealt with in Salem County, NJ given by Mrs. Rastelli.
“The only way to handle this problem is the effective collaboration of law enforcement, prosecutors, and the Department of Education,” said Dailey Lewis as she spoke passionately about the need for greater collaboration in how to deal with children cited for disruptive behavior.
She also discussed efforts by her department to cut down on the prosecution of minors in Delaware for either disorderly conduct or “mutual combatant” offenses in which no significant injury occurred. “Pre-arrest diversion is much more important than post-arrest diversion because it avoids an arrest,” she said of the fact that declining to put an arrest on a juveniles record can play a huge role in avoiding future problems for minors who may not become repeat offenders.
Echoing Dailey Lewis’s remarks, Mr. Volz said, “We’ve gotten to a society where we’re punishing things that don’t deserve to be punished,” before discussing how setting up youth courts can serve an important role in curtailing the over-aggressive prosecution of minors.
In his remarks, Mr. Lang discussed the strong correlation between mental disabilities and juvenile offenses. He also cautioned, “You don’t want to punish behavior that is a result of a disability a child has.”
At the conclusion of the entire panel’s prepared remarks, the panelists took questions from the audience addressing a wide range of topics including funding and “push-outs”, economic arguments about the cost of education versus prison, and the differences between school code of conduct violations and criminal juvenile offenses.