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Thompson: We Need a Marshall Plan for Schools and Prisons

I grew up in the post-World War II era known as "Pax Americana." We all knew that our ambitious New Deal/Fair Deal era policies, ranging from G.I. Bill to the rebuilding of Europe with the help of the Marshall Plan, were not perfect. But, we knew in our bones that tomorrow would be better than today. Government and social science would both play a role in the campaigns to expand the promise of America to all.

The Marshall Project's Eli Hager, in What Prisons Can Learn from Schools, pulls two incredibly complicated social problems together in a concise and masterful synthesis. Hager's insights are deserving of a detailed analysis. This post will merely take a first step towards an explanation of why Democrats and liberals, especially, must heed his wisdom.

School and prison reform are both deeply rooted in the Reaganism and the lowered horizons of the 1980s. The defeat of the "guns and butter" approach to the Vietnam War demonstrated the limits of our power. The Energy Crisis of 1973, along with a decade and a half of falling or stagnant wages, was somehow blamed on liberalism. The U.S. entered the emerging global marketplace without the confidence that had marked our previous decades, meaning that we were more preoccupied with surviving competition than building community. 

Americans lowered our horizons. As Hager explains, we were loath to tackle the legacies to the "overwhelming unfairnesses of history."  So, we broke off schools and prisons into separate "silos," and sought less expensive solutions for their challenges. We rejected the social science approach to tackling complex and interconnected social problems that were rooted in poverty. Our quest for cheaper and easier solutions would soon coincide with the rise of Big Data as a substitute for peer reviewed research in service to a Great Society.

I was researching the legal history of Oklahoma County when forces unleashed by the Reagan administration transformed my world. Its repudiation of the supposedly liberal regulation of finance brought down the savings and loan industry and the banking system in the Southwest. Virtually overnight, "Supply Side Economics" destroyed most of our high-quality blue collar jobs, and the "War on Drugs" further devastated families.

Oklahoma's criminal justice system of the 1980s still had one foot squarely planted in the old Jim Crow. Although records often were kept the old-fashioned way, data-driven policies were common, as should be clear to anyone who was ticketed by law enforcement officers needing to meet their "quota." In the Oklahoma County Courthouse, we had barely outgrown a numbers-driven ritual that should have been a warning to those who see output-driven policies as a tool for promoting equity. Until the 1970s, prosecutors competed openly and intensely to win the traveling trophy for getting the most "years," i.e. the longest prison sentences in any given case. 

In the 1980s, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and law enforcement officers agreed that the majority of Oklahoma's prison inmates were white but that the War on Drugs would create institutions where the majority would be persons of color. Most agreed that institutional, not personal racism, would be the driving force as systems' standard operating procedures were used to make the stats look good.   

And, that brings me back to Hager's "deja vu all over again" analysis. Liberals and civil rights advocates had long used data on disparate outcomes as evidence of discrimination.  Our goals, however, were “equal justice” and we knew that required fairer allocations of resources. But, with schools and criminal justice, conservatives "successfully moved the conversation among lawmakers toward one about outputs rather than inputs." Liberals bought the idea that "the problem is actually not  unequal funding between schools, or unequal access to representation in court. Rather, the problem is a “production function.”

I don't know that Hager would agree with my view that output-driven school reform is second only to the War on Drugs in terms of being a failure, and that both were driven by very similar playbooks. But, I completely agree with his summary of the four areas where school reform provides lessons for today's criminal justice system. First, "policing, like teaching, is necessarily a mass profession." But we've taken the shortcut of focusing on cops and teachers who "labor at the very bottom of the “implementation chain” of policy."

Second, as Hager explains, "Perhaps the most important similarity between the ever-intertwined school system and criminal justice system is that both are tasked with managing and taking care of those with cognitive, social, and economic deficits caused by poverty." 

Third, reformers in both sectors have seen the problem as "a 'production function' that needs to be made more efficient such that it can begin producing smart kids and rehabilitated ex-prisoners on the back end — no matter who comes in the front." Fourthly, competition-driven school reformers and prison reformers will be tempted to embrace “'tailoring interventions' to individual students or offenders." As in the case of charter schools "creaming" the easier-to-educate students in order to win the data-driven competition with traditional public schools, there is a risk that prison reformers will take the same easy out. 

I would add that the search for entrepreneurial criminal justice solutions could achieve some gains, but it could also result in privatization, which the worst of all worlds in terms of prisons and jails, as well as schools. Oklahoma prison reformer Louis Bullock challenged the corrupt and brutal prisons of the early 1970s and, as impossible as it seems, he sees today's privatized jails as being just as horrific as they were or even more so. Consequently, I hope that school and criminal justice reformers will heed the warnings of social science and the Marshall Project's Hager, and renounce the ultimate and doomed quick fix of privatization.

In recent decades, we have disrespected the liberal advocates and the institutions that gave us the social safety net and the Marshall Plan of 1948. Our old reforms may not have produced miracles, but they tackled entire social and economic problems and they made complicated circumstances better. Hager has issued a call worthy of the Marshall Project of today. -JT (@drjohnthompson) 


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