Plugging the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Rutgers University–Camden’s Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs uses data to improve the quality of life in South Jersey

A collaborative effort in Cumberland County has brought together many to reduce juvenile arrests. From left, Darrell Anderson, a mentor in the Millville Police Athletic League; Millville Police Sgt. Richard Kott; and Tracy Swan-Grova GSC’05, ’09, a Rand Institute senior project administrator.

When the high number of juvenile arrests in Vineland, New Jersey, were mapped out, a glaring hotspot came into view—the high school and a convenience store across the street.

This analysis of data, a collaboration of police and the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University–Camden, showed that many teens were arrested for incidents at school and the nearby convenience store. The findings prompted the police and school officials to collaborate to reduce the number of arrests by working together to introduce interventions that dealt with the problems but did not bring criminal charges, such as disorderly conduct, for minor infractions. “That simple adjustment reduced juvenile arrests,” said Darren Spielman, executive director of the Rand Institute. “That might sound like a small thing, but once you get arrested, and you get stuck in the juvenile justice system, your probabilities of having good outcomes tank. All of a sudden you are stigmatized and you have this juvenile record. Reducing juvenile arrests is very important for the future of young people.”

Tracy Swan-Grova, a senior project administrator for the Rand Institute who has directed the efforts to reduce juvenile delinquency in Cumberland County, said the analysis of arrest data was an effective way to help plug the school-to-prison pipeline. “Data we gather plays a key role in helping organizations understand the issues in their community,” said Swan-Grova, who holds master’s degrees in public administration and criminal justice from Rutgers–Camden.

The Rand Institute’s project to reduce juvenile arrests in Cumberland County, a county with some of the state’s highest crime and poverty rates, has been a resounding, long-term success. Over a six-year period from 2012 through 2018, juvenile arrests were cut almost in half, with a reduction of 45 percent in Vineland, Millville, and Bridgeton. The collaboration to reduce arrests in and around the high school was just one of many ideas implemented by the Cumberland County Positive Youth Development Coalition, a countywide juvenile delinquency prevention effort that brings in representatives from 75 varied government and nonprofit organizations. The coalition, which is funded by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and Cumberland County, is administered by the Rand Institute. It began in Vineland in 2009 and expanded to the cities of Millville and Bridgeton in 2013—making it the first countywide effort of its kind in the state. The success of the Cumberland County program led to the establishment of a similar program in three cities in Burlington County—Burlington City, Pemberton Township, and Willingboro—which the Rand Institute advises.

Projects developed in Cumberland County, many of which also have been adopted in Burlington County, include emphasizing a station house adjustment program with police that avoids charging youth who commit minor offenses, such as shoplifting, by diverting them into a system that administers justice without creating a criminal record. Other programs include the establishment of summer food-service sites that fill the gaps for teens who do not benefit from school breakfasts and lunches in the summertime, and block party-like events known as “play streets” that give teens activities in the summer and help them connect with resources.

The coalition also helped to revive Police Athletic Leagues (PAL) in Millville and Bridgeton, so now the three largest cities in Cumberland County each have several hundred kids participating. Darrell Anderson, a 20-year-old mentor and basketball coach in the Millville program who participated when he was a high school student, said PAL has tremendous benefits. “It was a great thing for everybody to get off the street and do something positive,” said Anderson. “I’ve seen some troubled kids join PAL and it really changed them. It took them off the street and kept them from running with a bad crowd.”

Millville Police Sgt. Richard Kott, a member of the coalition who heads the Millville PAL, credits the Rand Institute at Rutgers–Camden with spearheading the collaborative effort. “Without the Rand Institute’s administration, a lot of these things wouldn’t have happened,” Kott said. “They have done an excellent job over the years. You can’t put a price tag on it.”

Rutgers–Camden students and alumni also have been key players in the coalition. Sarah Filippi-Field, a 2019 honors graduate in urban studies from Vineland, began volunteering as a student representative when she was in high school. That participation contributed to her decision to attend Rutgers–Camden, where she worked with the Rand Institute. The many projects she worked on with the coalition include helping to develop an anti-shoplifting campaign and also establishing a program educating youth about proper uses of technology to avoid the dangers inherent in social media, such as cyber bullying. Filippi-Field said she is thrilled to see the statistics that show a precipitous drop in juvenile arrests in her home county. “It is great seeing the direct correlation to what we have been doing in those results,” she said.

Webb-McRae

Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae, a 1994 Rutgers Law School graduate and a native of Vineland, has been a leader on the coalition. She applauds the Rand Institute’s guidance as a technical adviser, and credits the coalition’s and Rand’s efforts in helping Cumberland County win a $737,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to combat gang and gun violence.

Webb-McRae said in addition to the benefits to youth who avoid the criminal justice system, the efforts save taxpayers money. One clear example is that the drop in juvenile arrests contributed to the closing of the Cumberland County youth detention center, a move that saved $1.5 million annually.

While the primary role of her job is to keep citizens safe by prosecuting crime, she is excited by the crime prevention work that she and others have been able to achieve through the coalition. “We cannot arrest our way out of many of the social ills that have found their way into the criminal justice system,” Webb-McRae said. “I’m happy to be a part of some of these social justice changes, as well as some of the smart fiscal taxpayer changes we’ve made.”

For more information about the Cumberland County Positive Youth Development Coalition, visit ccpydc.com.

Posted in: 2019 Fall, Features

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