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Experts call for focus on intervention first to end school-to-prison pipeline

Mariyah Zeigler was just 16 years old when she was convicted of first-degree robbery and sentenced to five years in a maximum security prison in Westchester County. She recounted a childhood marred by domestic abuse, crime and bullying at school during a public hearing on criminal justice reform Friday at Touro Law Center in Central Islip.

“Prison saved me. I spent the rest of my childhood growing up there,” Ms. Zeigler said. “Things that seemed impossible in the real world, I was attaining behind the wall.”

Several other women shared similar testimony about programs in prison that showed them a better way of life.

All argued that it shouldn’t have come to that in the first place, and called for intervention and prevention programs that could have altered their paths into prison.

Hundreds of law enforcement and education officials joined criminal justice reform advocates at the hearing, “Deconstructing the Prison Pipeline,” hosted by Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon and Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Babylon). 

For Ms. Zeigler, now 23 and working as a research assistant for Ms. Jean-Pierre, prison provided a level of comfort and security she didn’t have at home.

“The basic things. I had three hot meals and a bed every night,” she said through tears. “I was made to go to school every day.”

Those who testified offered a variety of perspectives and recommendations based on their experiences with the criminal justice system. The hearing was presented by a task force of the same name, organized by Sheriff Toulon and co-chaired by Ms. Jean-Pierre.

“A few years ago, the mother of a young person stood up in my court and cried out, ‘Judge, please help me. I’m losing my child to the system.’ We have a moral responsibility to respond to her cries,” said Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho, who called for alternatives to incarceration for young people.

In his 15 years presiding over youth court, Justice Camacho said, he has identified family environment, substance abuse, mental health issues, lack of education and gangs as among the factors that lead young people into crime.

He called for the creation of “safe spaces” for “at-risk” children to receive counseling, recreational activities, job training and education. He said he’d like to see an “aggressive, unified,” response to the problem.

Rebecca Sanin, president of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, seeks to upend the dialogue surrounding those very children who are labeled as “at risk.”

Members of the task force and advocates for prison reform spoke at Friday’s public hearing, calling for a better system to prevent troubled youths from reaching the prison system.

‘Don’t get me wrong, we have young men and women who should go to jail for their crimes. But if we are serious about ending the prison pipeline, we need to direct more resources into crime prevention and early intervention and pay more attention to the children of those who are presently incarcerated.’

Sheriff Errol Toulon

‘Long Island no longer has pockets of poverty. We have pockets of wealth. ZIP code determines far too much here. By the age of 4, social mobility, health, education and every definition of success is already on a track to produce radically different outcomes.’

Rebecca Sanin
president and CEO, Health and Welfare Council of Long Island

‘We’re not exactly being proactive with these issues. We’re waiting until kids get in trouble to work with them. We have to fix that.’ 

Charles Fox Jr.
director of special projects, Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk

“When we talk about children, we have to remember that behavior is a language,” she said, noting that kids who act out in school are communicating for help. “What do we do as a society? We punish.”

Zero-tolerance policies that lead to school suspensions and expulsions disproportionately affect students of color, Ms. Sanin said. According to a national study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, black students are 3.5 times more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled. “The state Department of Education has a very significant role to play in dismantling the pipeline,” Ms. Sanin said.

State assistant attorney general Ajay Saini also testified on the intersection of school policy and race and noted that even one suspension can increase the likelihood that a student will end up in the criminal justice system.

Mr. Saini advocated against “exclusionary” disciplinary policies after investigating school districts in Syracuse and Albany that were suspending minority students at two to three times the rate of white students.

The Suffolk County Legal Aid Society handles the largest percentage of juvenile cases in the county, according to attorney Elizabeth Justesen, community outreach director for the society. She said more effort should be put into restorative justice, a judicial concept that emphasizes rehabilitation and repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior.

Ms. Justesen also proposed that defense attorneys and prosecutors who handle cases in family and youth court participate in trainings that focus on understanding trauma, poverty, racial disparities and implicit bias.

Sheriff Toulon formed the task force last fall after analyzing data on crime trends in Suffolk County showing that crime and incarceration disproportionately impact African-American males and individuals from low-income communities. Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force member Marilyn Banks-Winter and Riverhead Central School District Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez were among the local public officials in attendance at Friday’s event.

Dr. Henriquez praised Sheriff Toulon for holding the hearing. 

“This was a long overdue conversation on how schools, the community and political agencies can work together to break the cycle of the prison pipeline,” she said Tuesday. The superintendent added that the forum provided information she will bring take to the district to assist with prevention efforts and new programs. “In the Riverhead Central School District, we are constantly and consistently seeking out new ways to provide support, positive experiences and role models to our students to keep them engaged in education,” she said.

Ms. Banks-Winter agreed that the event was a good start. 

“Who is accountable for their fall? Where is the help they need from local organizations?” she said, expressing frustration that many students are classified by a system that does not acknowledge the root of the problem.

Her organization, the The African-American Educational and Cultural Festival, Inc., (AAECF) is seeking to partner with some of the Sheriff’s programs to help young people succeed.

“We have connections and resources to help those who are released from jail or prison to have a second chance  and to find and secure jobs,” she said Wednesday.

In order for that to work, she added that parole officers must work with the AAECF to help these individuals succeed and stop the “vicious cycle.”

The task force is charged with exploring how trauma, poverty, race, school policies, substance abuse and gangs feed the prison pipeline. “Most young people end up in jail largely because of the circumstances that shape their lives,” said Sheriff Toulon, a former Rikers Island corrections officer.

The task force is expected to publish recommendations and implement a pilot program based on lessons learned at the hearing.

“There’s a fear somehow that reform means being soft on crime,” the sheriff said. He cited a 2017 Prison Policy Initiative study that found the United States spends $182 billion on mass incarceration each year. “If we invest just a portion of that into prevention and intervention, we will turn around countless lives,” he said.

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