Preventing jail with diplomas

The end of the road? // Creative Commons
The end of the road? // Creative Commons

Although a high school diploma can’t be used as a “Get out of jail free” card, obtaining one might be the best defence against ever needing one, particularly for racialized (visible minority) youth.

When federal Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers tabled his Annual Report in parliament just before the Christmas break, he sounded the alarm about increasingly disproportionate numbers of First Nations and other visible minority groups incarcerated within the federal justice system. In the 10-year period between March 2003 and March 2013, the number of inmates in federal institutions grew by approximately 2100 people, an overall increase of 16.5 percent. During the same time period, the number of aboriginal inmates increased by 46.4 percent while those belonging to visible minority groups (black, Hispanic, Asian, East Indian and other ethnicities) increased by almost 75 percent with the number of black inmates growing by nearly 90 percent.

In his report, Sapers wrote, “Disproportionate rates of incarceration of some minority groups, including black and aboriginal Canadians, reflect gaps in our social fabric and raise concerns about social inclusion, participation and equality of opportunity.”

Education has long been an important factor in these areas and the lack of school completion appears to be an important indicator relative to the potential of incarceration. According to Statistics Canada, a high school diploma lowers the likelihood of incarceration everywhere in the country, and if you live in Saskatchewan or Alberta and happen to be aboriginal, the absence of a high school diploma exacerbates that likelihood considerably. In Saskatchewan, the incarceration rate among aboriginal young adults with a high school education but without a job was approximately four times lower than the rate among those with a job but without a high school diploma. In Alberta, the rate among those with a high school diploma but without a job was almost three times lower than the rate among those with a job but without a high school diploma.

According to a 2009 study by the Canadian Council on Learning, lack of education is the second best predictor of incarceration, with previous incarceration being the first. According to that study, costs to the criminal justice system are estimated at more than $200 for each school dropout, equal to more than $350 million per year. The costs are high for society and for the individual as well. A 2011 report by the CD Howe Institute indicates that the probability of someone between with ages of 25 and 64 without a high school diploma reporting income below the Low Income Cutoff (LICO) is nearly one in three. This is double the rate for those with trade certificates and nearly three times the rate for those with a university degree.

This should be of particular importance in Edmonton where our school boards, despite improvement in recent years, continue to report some of the highest dropout rates in the country, with First Nations, Metis and Inuit (FNMI) students failing to complete school at a much higher rate than their non-aboriginal counterparts.

In its annual report filed in December, Edmonton Public Schools reported a decrease in its dropout rate for FNMI students to 9.4 percent, down from a three-year average of 11.8 percent, which sounds good until it is compared to the overall dropout rate for any student, which is just 3.6 percent. While 69.8 percent of all Edmonton Public students obtain their Grade 12 diploma, just one-fifth of FNMI students graduate.

Things are slightly better at Edmonton Catholic, where the completion rate for FNMI students climbed to 48.8 percent in 2013, up from a three-year average of 29.8 percent. Again, this suffers from a comparison with non-aboriginal students, of which 81.4 percent graduate. As at the public board, FNMI students drop out from Edmonton Catholic at a disproportionate rate: 7.6 percent compared to just 2.4 percent for non-aboriginal students.

These numbers are fairly consistent across the country. According to the Assembly of First Nations’ Chiefs Assembly on Education held in the fall of 2012, just 35 percent of FNMI students complete school to graduation, compared to 72 percent among the general population. The Assembly reported that 61 percent of FNMI young adults (aged 20 to 24) have not completed high school, compared to 13 percent among non-FNMI people.

Although neither Edmonton board provides a breakdown of the dropout rates of students from other visible minority groups, anecdotal evidence offered by educators and administrators suggest it is high, particularly among boys. According to Edmonton Public, more than 30 percent of students within the district’s schools now self-identify as “the other.” This number includes FNMI students, along with English Language Learners (ELL); refugee and newcomers; students in need of specialized supports and services; and sexual and gender minorities. Edmonton Catholic also reports increased diversity, with the number of ELL students in the district growing 47.5 percent over the past five years, making newcomers to Canada the fastest-growing population attending Edmonton Catholic schools.

Both school boards offer storefront options for students to complete their diplomas when the traditional classroom setting doesn’t meet their needs. Through its Fresh Start and Partners for Youth programs, Edmonton Catholic operates six outreach high schools for students who are not attending a regular high school and may benefit from a smaller site with more flexible scheduling and self-directed delivery. Similarly, Edmonton Public offers five locations of The Learning Store, the Transitions program at the downtown YMCA and two New Directions programs that are accessible to students throughout the city.

While both boards are making efforts to ensure students are provided with the extra supports they need to achieve success in school, a number of community organizations work independently and with the school boards to meet the needs of youth who are at risk of abandoning their education and those who already have.

Support to keep at risk youth in school can range from traditional homework clubs like the one at the Africa Centre to Terra, a program for parenting teens which operates out of Braemar School, to some of the really innovative programming offered at agencies like iHuman and YOUCAN Youth Services.

The Verto Project (Latin for “turn around” or “change”) brings at-risk youth together at YOUCAN for a unique 15-week group-based employability skills program where youth receive remuneration and a completion bonus. Funded by both the provincial and federal governments, the Verto Project gives youth aged 16 to 21 years the skills they need to transition from whatever current circumstances are preventing them from succeeding and back into school or into the labour market.

According to Richard Flank, the project manager for Verto, the program has strong demand, with the organization vetting about 100 applicants for the 19 youth they can accommodate each session. He estimates approximately 60 to 70 percent of the youth they serve are FNMI and between five and 10 percent are from other visible minority groups. His agency also employs Relentless Youth Outreach Workers, who work in specially trained, mobile teams which travel to community hot spots where at-risk youth gather.

“No youth is turned away,” Flank explains, whether or not they sign on to one of YOUCAN’s programs. “We’ll help them get ID, open a bank account and, if necessary, get them in touch with health-care providers.”

Flank notes that if YOUCAN can’t help a particular youth, there’s a good chance they know someone who can.

“We have an extensive network of other agencies to which we can refer youth, depending on their needs,” he adds.

For those students still in school and at risk of leaving early, YOUCAN has the “Step Up and Step In” program, an initiative focusing on youth engagement, leadership and empowerment and geared toward the prevention of youth violence and criminal activity. It operates out of nine public junior and senior high schools and has shown impressive results both with respect to keeping students in school and keeping them out of the criminal justice system.

YOUCAN is also a collaborator (with REACH Edmonton, The Africa Centre, Edmonton John Howard Society, Edmonton Police Services and Native Counselling Services of Alberta) in the recently announced WRAPed crime prevention initiative, a federally-funded effort targeting youth between the ages of 12 and 17 years who are most at risk of involvement with gangs.

Sapers’ report indicates that the face of Canadian corrections is changing and it is true that we live in an increasingly diverse, multi-ethnic and pluralistic society. But the diversity we are seeing in the corrections system is disproportionate; the numbers of First Nations and other visible minorities are growing much more quickly inside the walls of our prisons than they are outside. The increased diversity in corrections is not merely a reflection of larger demographic trends in Canadian society.

Research conducted by the Centre for Race and Culture indicates that FNMI and visible minorities (racialized people) do not commit more crime than non-racialized Canadians with similar life circumstances. With the link between educational attainment and likelihood of being drawn to criminal activity clearly established, every effort to improve high school completion rates for at-risk youth deserves our full and unconditional support.

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