The toll of zero-tolerance discipline

  • Half of the high-school-aged kids locked up at the St. Charles youth prison west of Chicago are not getting full-time classes because there are not enough teachers.
  • A teen in his cell at Illinois Youth Center, a youth prison in Chicago.
  • Arthur Burgess, 19, of the 500 block of East 32nd Street, died at the scene after he was shot in West Englewood on a cold winter night. His friend was shot twice. One of the bullets hit his arm and the other hit his leg.
  • A view of the confinement unit from outside the perimeter of the Joliet maximum security youth prison in Joliet, Ill.
  • Handcuffs used to transport youth prison inmates in Joliet prison in Joliet, Ill.
  • The caged-in areas where high-school-aged inmates are held in solitary confinement in St. Charles prison west of Chicago.
  • A view of the confinement unit at Joliet maximum security youth prison in Joliet, Ill.
  • Inmates at Cook County Sheriff’s Boot Camp program in Chicago, Ill.
  • Fourteen-year-old Juan Cazares was fatally shot while playing basketball at Cornell Square Park in Chicago. The teen had friends in gangs but denied being in one.
  • Inmate participants attend an 18-week program at the Cook County Sheriff’s Boot Camp in Chicago. Education is part of this program.
  • Inmates attend an 18-week program at the Cook County Sheriff’s Boot Camp in Chicago.
  • Inmate participants attend an 18-week program at the Cook County Sheriff’s Boot Camp in Chicago.



Young black and Latino men are being churned out of classrooms and into the criminal justice system at an astounding rate. Despite modest gains in high school graduation rates, far too often young men of color become fodder for the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, a euphemism for institutional criminalization that for decades has filled prison cells disproportionately with youthful black and brown faces. Across the country, poor, minority and special needs boys especially face the wrath of zero-tolerance school discipline policies that subject them to suspensions, expulsions and arrest at a disproportionate rate for committing similar infractions as their white counterparts.

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Aggressive policing in neighborhoods of color has meant increased interaction with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. This, coupled with huge systemic achievement gaps has further fueled cycles of unemployment, poverty and instability.

The result, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, is that 1 in 3 black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are likely to face incarceration during their lifetime.

Last week, White House officials announced that President Barack Obama has taken a bold step in addressing the myriad struggles of black and Latino young men with a new initiative called My Brother’s Keeper, which officials say will offer “every young man of color who is willing to work hard and lift himself up an opportunity to get ahead and reach his full potential.” 

It’s the latest in a string of recent steps by the administration to remedy this beleaguered demographic.

Last year the Justice Department overhauled crack-era drug sentencing laws that largely punished non-violent, minority offenders with stiff mandatory sentences. The department also recently refined its guidelines to school districts on ‘zero tolerance’ policies and just last month the president and first lady Michelle Obama announced an initiative that would knock down some of the barriers between poor and minority students and a college education.

Advocates of young black and Latino men say without a comprehensive, well-funded national push to address their plight, the nation will continue to pay a steep price both socially and economically.

“When incarcerating this many young men of color, that’s costing our society. People need to realize we are all paying, not just those black families that are losing these young men,” Pedro Noguera, executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University. “We are spending so much just for the cost of incarceration and then we have all these people who are coming out of prison unskilled and a burden on our society.”