In Partnership with 74

Commentary: Why should prison begin at age 2?

Guest contributor | October 30, 2014

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LAUSD teacher jails

By Chris Ciampa

Not every California student has access to the same opportunities. I know because I teach, and have taught, in some of our state’s most underserved schools. I support Proposition 47 because in addition to reclassifying a set of non-violent felonies as misdemeanors, the ballot measure would also reallocate some of the $1.79 billion California spends each year on non-violent offenders. If passed, those funds could be instrumental in creating an environment where all California children have access to the support they need in the classroom.

What do classrooms have to do with a ballot measure that, on its surface, is about crime and prisons? The proposed sentencing changes still require people who have made poor decisions to bear reasonable consequences for their actions. They also allow the same people a real chance of stepping out of the cycle of crime, punishment, and recidivism. Funds reallocated by the proposition would give teachers like me resources to address the basic inequities that can land young people in jail to begin with.

In my career, I have encountered many young people whose parents are missing or constantly working. For those kids, a dedicated, well-qualified teacher is often the only available adult to focus on their education and can be foundational in breaking a cycle of incarceration and poverty.

As a child, I never knew I was living the American Dream. My single working grandmother, who never attended college, read me Shakespeare in the park. My single working mother, who wrote for television but only attended one year at U.C.L.A, had a fond and persistent wish that I should go to college. In 7th grade, I began attending The Buckley School, a tony K-12 prep school in Sherman Oaks whose founder, Dr. Isabelle Buckley, coined the school’s motto, “College Begins at Two.”

The Buckley School prepared me well for success in college. Before that, my mom and grandma’s attention, time, and expectations taught me a high value for education. But what about the kids without Shakespeare-loving grandmas and mothers who are professional writers?

For too many of my students, prison, not college, begins at two.

I have taught too many kids in Compton and Van Nuys who rely on an underfunded school system for any shot at social mobility. They and their families share the same American Dream my family and I have – advancement through education. My education has given me the freedom to choose and change careers. For my high school students, some of whom still read and write at a third or fourth grade level, that same freedom will be an uphill battle.

Since 1981, the year I started the 7th grade at Buckley, California’s prison spending has gone up 1,500 percent to $10 billion a year. In the past 20 years, California spending per prisoner has increased nearly three times faster, to $62,396, than spending for every K-12 student, now $9,194. Since 1984, California has built 22 prisons and just one University of California campus. We spend 80 percent more on Corrections than we do on California State Universities and University of California colleges combined.

Without better-funded schools that support invested teachers, too many kids will slip through cracks. It’s a trend we have to stop. We can, if we reevaluate our priorities and decide that education is a better offer than punishment for our at risk youth. I firmly believe that it is the best, most promising offer we can make our kids. Join me in voting ‘Yes’ on Proposition 47.

Chris Ciampa is a high school English teacher who has taught in Compton and Los Angeles for the past six years. 


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