Civil Liberties

The Town Where Farting Can Land a Kid in Jail

The school-to-prison pipeline in Meridian, Mississippi


Welcome to Meridian, Mississippi:

Cedrico Green can't exactly remember how many times he went back and forth to juvenile. When asked to venture a guess he says, "Maybe 30." He was put on probation by a youth court judge for getting into a fight when he was in eighth grade. Thereafter, any of Green's school-based infractions, from being a few minutes late for class to breaking the school dress code by wearing the wrong color socks, counted as violations of his probation and led to his immediate suspension and incarceration in the local juvenile detention center.

But Green wasn't alone. A bracing Department of Justice lawsuit filed last month against Meridian, Miss., where Green lives and is set to graduate from high school this coming year, argues that the city's juvenile justice system has operated a school to prison pipeline that shoves students out of school and into the criminal justice system, and violates young people's due process rights along the way.

In Meridian, when schools want to discipline children, they do much more than just send them to the principal's office. They call the police, who show up to arrest children who are as young as 10 years old. Arrests, the Department of Justice says, happen automatically, regardless of whether the police officer knows exactly what kind of offense the child has committed or whether that offense is even worthy of an arrest. The police department's policy is to arrest all children referred to the agency.

Once those children are in the juvenile justice system, they are denied basic constitutional rights. They are handcuffed and incarcerated for days without any hearing and subsequently warehoused without understanding their alleged probation violations.

You can read the DOJ's full complaint here. For fans of dry dark comedy, the high point comes after the lawyers quote the county's "probation contract" for young offenders: "Youth counselors themselves are unable to clearly explain what the language in the above paragraph means." Also illuminating: a list of offenses for which kids are "regularly incarcerated," which range from "dress code infractions" to "using vulgar language" to "flatulence in class."

Side note: The Southern Poverty Law Center has been working to bring attention to the situation in Meridian, and it filed a lawsuit of its own against the county a few years ago. I'm usually very critical of the SPLC, a civil rights group that tends to focus its attention on the supposedly subversive threat posed by fringe organizations rather than the much more substantial damage done to minorities by schools, police departments, and other powerful institutions. But I'll give credit where it's due: In this case, and some other cases involving juvenile justice in Mississippi, the SPLC has been on the side of the angels.