Shifting From Prisons to Schools: Redemption in California

Oct. 31, 2014 / By

Equal Voice News, Commentary, Raj Jayadev, Posted: Oct 30, 2014
In 1999, about this time of the year, I was hanging billboard-size banners off freeway overpasses with a bunch of people I just met that morning. The spray-painted bedsheets read “No on Prop 21!” and “Stop Criminalizing Youth of Color.”

We were part of California’s burgeoning youth movement – mainly twentysomethings who were coming of age at a fork-in-the-road moment for the state in terms of how it viewed, responded to and served its young people.

Proposition 21 was a “tough-on-crime” initiative from a continuum of policies set in the 1980s. Under its language, juveniles could be charged as adults, which would significantly increase prison sentences for a broad array of felonies. Ultimately, it promised to dramatically increase California’s incarceration rates.

California voters passed Proposition 21 (despite massive organizing by young people). It committed California — financially and ethically — to the notion that “lock-them-up politics” was a sound public safety framework to move us forward. Generations of California’s youth have been paying the price ever since.

Our prisons are now so crowded that the U.S. Supreme Court found them in violation of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. And the money required to support the exponential growth in California’s incarceration numbers has depleted public resources that could have gone to opportunities and supportive structures for youth through education and social services.

And a more subtle consequence has burrowed itself into the consciousness of many Californians. That is, youth of color in California grow up knowing that the adult generation sees them as threats to be controlled, rather than potential in which to be invested.

The decision to choose incarceration over education has been so calcified into our funding priorities that one can see it just from the institutions we choose to build. In the time it took to build 22 prisons in California, we have built only one University of California campus.

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