Lawmaker Pushes Reforms Aimed at Disabling Michigan’s School to Prison Pipeline

State rep. Adam Zemke held a town hall forum focusing on ways to reduce the number of youth entering the “school-to-prison pipeline” due to zero-tolerance policies in schools.

By Christopher Zoukis

A Michigan lawmaker is set on hobbling the school-to-prison pipeline in his state.

The forum was titled “How to Create a School-to-Success Continuum: Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Zemke has long been a strong supporter of education as a way to keep youth out of the prison system. He sponsored legislation signed into law last year that gives local schools more autonomy over harsh punitive decisions for students when it comes to things like suspension and expulsion. He asserts that schools should move away from the strict, zero-tolerance policies that he feels feed the school-to-prison pipeline.

Michigan’s zero-tolerance policy covers a wide variety of issues including violence, weapons, tobacco, alcohol and bomb threats in schools. Before the new legislation, the automatic punishment for students was mandatory suspension or expulsion. That approach saw 1,347 Michigan students expelled during the 2014-2015 school year. Forty-five percent of those students were kicked out of school for approximately 180 days, and 8 percent of students were booted permanently.

When the new bill was introduced last year, it called for the removal of mandatory suspensions and expulsions for some violations, and a transfer of judgement on infractions from the government to the school district. This would allow for school administrators to take into account the age, history, previous infractions, intent and the mental capacity of each perpetrator. The bill also called for the use of restorative justice over more punitive measures.

Zemke was surprised but pleased to see the overwhelming support that Republicans showed for the legislation. “I think the bright light of this is, although we spent 25 or 30 years engaging in really bad practices because we had really bad policy, the tide is turning on these issues, and the policies that were put in place in the ’90s and the early 2000s are being repealed, and they’re being repealed on a bipartisan basis,” Zemke said in a media interview.

He further noted that reduced prison costs would free up funds for education and recidivism-prevention programs. Education is commonly touted as the “cure” for the school-to-prison pipeline, and there is plenty of evidence to support this claim. For example, a study by the Economic Opportunity Institute found that in Chicago, children as young as three and four years old that did not participate in preschool programs were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by the age of 18.

With the public forum behind him and the new legislation in place, Zemke is not done yet. The forum also touched on further reforms around youth in prions and re-entry assistance. According to Zemke, before the event, “This forum is more about understanding what the scope of the problem is, what’s been done, and what needs to be done still to solve it.”

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.