- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

John C. Brittain is the chief counsel and senior deputy director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, a 45-year-old public-interest legal organization started by President Kennedy to enlist private lawyers to take pro-bono civil rights cases.

Mr. Brittain, a former law school dean at Texas Southern University in Houston, law professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law and public-interest civil rights lawyer, has served as the president of the National Lawyers Guild. He also served as legal counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s local branches, state conference and national office of the general counsel. He received the NAACP’s highest honor for a lawyer, the William Robert Ming Advocacy Award for legal service without a fee.

He spoke to The Washington Times about the connection between an inadequate education and criminal behavior regarding D.C. youths as they are about to break from school for summer recess.

JY: With the recession and the unemployment rate near 10 percent in the District, what kind of impact will this have on youths who will soon be out of school on summer break?

JB: In the best of times, there is always a struggle during the summertime to provide for youth employment. Indeed, as I recall, last summer, in 2008 in the District of Columbia, there was a major scandal in the District’s Summer Youth Employment Program. Now, with the economic conditions, as some call it a recession, some in the black community call it a depression. And it didn’t start last September, in 2008, either.

There is a deep concern about whether the decrease in jobs will result in an increase in juvenile delinquency and more serious crimes. Without jobs and without an opportunity within the communities of color and low-income communities, there’s no hope. There’s no future. And it paves the way for those other kinds of economic enterprises, such as drugs and other crime, … for what I call purely criminal activity or what some say is the necessity in order to survive.

JY: Is there a racial disparity in the juvenile justice system between white and black offenders?

JB: One of the best sociological concepts to describe the plight of young African-Americans and Latinos and other people of color is the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This is a phenomenon in which the schools are inadequately educating the youth of color. As a result, the youth drop out, and they drop into crime at a disproportionate level for African-American and Latino youth.

In addition, the schools have turned to law enforcement for handling what used to be student disciplinary action at the schools. So, a combination of the school-to-prison pipeline [and] overutilizing the criminal system to handle student disciplinary matters, as well as the high dropout for students, leads to a well-known statistic.

The most statistically [significant] fact of a cohort or persons in prison from approximately 18 to 27 years of age is that over 90 percent of them lack a high school diploma.

Therefore, the high school diploma becomes the most significant fact to prevent incarceration. We, in the nation, pay on an average some $35,000 to $40,000 a year to house a prisoner. And yet we pay on an average no more than $12,000, sometimes $15,000, to educate a child. That’s a misallocation of our recourses that [if changed] could improve this society.

JY: How would you grade [D.C. School] Chancellor Michelle Rhee?

JB: I think the verdict is still out. After just about two years of her tenure, to see whether it is going to improve the achievement of the students and improve the overall condition of education in the District of Columbia, is still to be seen. The District of Columbia public school system, though, in the past had been deplorable. The statistics for the nearly all-minority school district just a block from the U.S. Capitol had some of the highest dropout rates. Less than 50 percent graduate from high school. With a very low graduation rate and an overall poor performance, the District cried out for change. The status quo was unacceptable. The question of [whether] the new methods of Mayor [Adrian M.] Fenty and Chancellor Rhee will succeed remains to be seen.

Joseph Young is a writer and photographer living in the District.

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