Interconnecting Systems: Education and Juvenile Justice Reform

Time is flying by here at the Alameda County Office of Education. It’s amazing to think that in less than a month I have been able to shadow, converse, and learn from such impactful leaders in the educational community. They have all provided vast insight into how the County functions and deepened my knowledge about educational issues such as the school-to-prison pipeline, education budgets, state education policy and much more. I’ve dipped my toes into various ongoing projects, but one I want to briefly elaborate on relates to juvenile justice reform and the education system.

One project that I’m currently working on involves the implementation of a new webpage for the Youth Justice Education Summit that the County organized last year. The day-long conference in Oakland convened community leaders, education policymakers, and local youth to learn about and begin participating in wide-sweeping reform that needs to take place throughout the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

The County has a stake in seeing that juvenile justice reform takes place because it manages multiple school sites that directly serve youth who are at-risk or have experienced the punitive and frequently harsh realities found within the justice system. The problem is typically described as a disturbing trend known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which disadvantaged public school students tend to funnel into the prison or juvenile justice systems. A related problem is that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with California’s spending per prisoner increasing nearly three times faster than spending per K-12 student in the past two decades. There is undoubtedly a correlation between prisons and schools in the U.S., but how do we analyze and define the problem in order to reform?

To better understand the County’s juvenile justice reform work, I interviewed the current and former County Superintendents, a County program director, and a probation expert specializing in juvenile and criminal justice reform throughout his career. Throughout my interviews with these remarkable leaders I uncovered a wealth of information about the inequities and inadequacies of the juvenile justice system and how they connect to those found within the educational system. I realized that instead of rehabilitating and educating society’s most broken souls, we tend to imprison them. When will we learn to empower and invest—not imprison—the most vulnerable members of our society? Foster youth, low-income, and minority students are all populations with immense potential, but it is up to everyday citizens, policymakers, and community leaders to unlock this potential and view them as assets instead of deficits waiting to be locked away.

Some may wonder, why be concerned with juvenile justice reform in an educational agency? The truth is that the problems, inefficiencies, and inequities in our educational system cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Rather they must be analyzed within the context of other systems that are also in motion, such as our criminal justice and health systems, which also affect the outcomes of students. We must understand and leverage the resources of these neighboring systems in order to impact the most effective change possible. With effective systems and people in place, we can provide the education and services that students crave.

At Berkeley, I study capitalism and am encouraged to analyze the criticisms and benefits of this economic system in conjunction with our political system, so I understand how constructive a systemic analytical framework can be. And while it may be that one health policymaker or one education administrator may not engage in tackling system-wide reform, it is crucial that all leaders acknowledge the complexity of these systems and inform their decisions with this in mind. Perhaps future effective reform will perceive our world for what it is—systemic.

There is no doubt our systems are broken, and those who suffer the consequences are usually those most vulnerable in our society. However, I also have no doubt that there are good people working tirelessly to reform and learn how systems interact. In fact, there is immense reason to hope—especially since the Superintendent’s administrative team recently attended a week-long systems thinking conference. I can only hope that this work continues to move the needle on improving the systems our communities, our families, and our loved ones all belong to, rely on, and live in every day.

Gladys Rosario is a senior at UC Berkeley studying political economy and global poverty & practice. She is interning at the Alameda County Office of Education as a Matsui Local Government Fellow.