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Virginia tops in sending kids to jail, new report says
The state of Virginia is No. 1 in the nation for referring kids to the justice system a dubious distinction followed closely at the top with Florida and Delaware. - photo by Eric Schulzke
Virginia tops the nation in how often it refers kids to the justice system, according to a new report by The Center for Public Integrity.

The report leads with a story of an 11-year-old autistic boy in Lynchburg, Virginia, who was charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer after a minor rule infraction a rule aimed specifically at him.

According to the CPI report, the sixth-grader, Kayleb Moon-Robinson, had been told that he was to wait until all the other students had left the class to leave. He left before that and the principal sent the school police officer to detain him.

He grabbed me and tried to take me to the office, Kayleb told CPI. I started pushing him away. He slammed me down, and then he handcuffed me.

The Center for Public Integrity ranked states by their rate of referral to policy or courts for every 1,000 students. Virginia stands at the top of this report, with Delaware and Florida close behind.

Texas is down at 31 on the list, perhaps surprisingly, since the Lone Star State has been in the news on this front lately. Late last month the Justice Department announced it was investigating Dallas County to see whether its alleged excessive use of truancy laws to punish kids who miss school is driving kids out of school.

"In Texas, failure to attend school, or truancy, is a criminal offense punishable by fines up to $500, plus court costs. Judges also have wide discretion in levying additional penalties. They can order children to attend counseling or perform community service, or even wear an ankle monitor or drop out of school entirely," PBS noted in its report.

Ensuring that childrens rights under the Constitution and federal law are protected during the court process is a key step to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division said in a Justice Department press statement. We hope to work cooperatively with the county in determining whether it has taken steps to ensure that its juvenile and criminal courts fully respect the rights of the children who come before them.

Shunting young children like Kayleb into the justice system is now widely decried as the "school-to-prison pipeline." Closely related to this debate is the dilemma of "status offenses," which are acts like underage drinking, truancy or curfew violations that only minors can commit, which are not technically crimes, but which often end up directing kids into the legal system.

Almost 20 percent of detained status offenders and other non-offenders (e.g., youth involved with the child welfare system) are placed in living quarters with youth who have committed murder or manslaughter and 25 percent are placed in units with felony sex offenders, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice reported in a recent white paper.

Sometimes judges feel they need to lock up status offenders for fear of where they will go and what they will do, Lisa Pilnik, a consultant for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, said in a report on status offenses. But if you look at the detention facilities, they are being locked up with youth who have committed much more serious offenses.
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