When Students Are Stuck In Jail, A Teacher's Letter To The Judge Can Get Them Out

May 28, 2019

Each year thousands of New Orleans students end up having some kind of involvement with the court system - whether immigration court, or criminal court. And that makes focusing on school tough, especially when students are held in jail or detained while they're waiting for their court date. Social worker and educator Lisa Maria Rhodes created an organization called ALAS to help court-involved students. She sat down with WWNO's Jess Clark to talk about how teachers can play a role in getting students released from jail.

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: You’ve been an educator and social worker in New Orleans for many years, but you started focusing your work around helping court-involved youth about four years ago. What was going on with your students at that time that made you realize this was where you wanted to focus your efforts?

I continually had students who were absent from school because they were court-involved. And come to find out, that if they had the money to pay the bond, they would be back in school the next day. But because they were too poor to afford bond, they had to wait in jail for at least two months to find out whether their charges were accepted or denied. So that means if their charges were denied, they never had a case, and they just missed two months of school. They come back very behind, needing to catch up, of course incurring trauma and lower confidence because of the situation they just lived through, and I saw that directly contributing to dropout rates.

Q: Why are students being held in detention?

The reason they're being held is because they are too poor to afford their bond. If they had a classmate whose parents could afford to pay their bond, that classmate would be in school the next day. So the difference here is money - it's a penalty for being poor, a really drastic penalty. And in terms of length of time, the minimum is two months as they wait to find out whether their charges are accepted or denied. If the charges get accepted and they actually have a case, I've seen students wait in jail for years.

Q: And this is before they even are determined guilty or innocent?

Yes, because it takes a long time to get to that date.

Q: How does your organization, ALAS, help these students who are facing criminal charges?

ALAS trains educators to write mitigation letters. This is a letter of support written to the judge stating what the student would be receiving at school if they were to be released. It's not asking educators to take any stance on any type of charges. It's just saying the student deserves their constitutional right to being considered innocent before they have their day in court, and to receive their full education at their home school before their court date.

Q: If I'm a teacher, and I want to write a letter to get my student out of jail, what do I say?

That's where ALAS comes in. And schools can contract ALAS to do staff trainings so that teachers learn how to write in a way that will be well-received by the court. Essentially the goal is to talk about the child's humanity. When a judge is seeing many numbers of people every day, it's very different to have a letter of support that highlights the student's accomplishments, or that the kid is in chapter 17 of Harry Potter, for example - the things that make the student who they are. And then, you should explain all the supports the school is offering, as well as what's at stake: if the student spends the next two months in jail, what is it that they are going to miss in their academic and professional trajectory?

Q: Has this been convincing to judges?

So far. We have a 100-percent success rate of students being released on recognizance, or getting a bond reduction. When a student is released on recognizance, they are bound to show up for their court date just like anyone who paid a bond, but without having paid a bond.

Q: Is the teacher held responsible or liable in any way if the student doesn't show up for their court date?

Absolutely not.

Q: How does your organization help youth facing immigration proceedings?

We train educators to connect students facing immigration proceedings to legal services. When students don't have an attorney in their immigration case, they only have an 8 percent chance of getting permanent residency. If they have an attorney, they have an 88 percent chance of getting permanent residency. I have students going to immigration court representing themselves in a language that is not their first language. That means they're not likely to get permanent residency, and therefore, they're not likely to have access to employment options, or in-state tuition rates or financial aid for college, and that makes higher education unattainable. So then the motivation to continue high school decreases, because it becomes a question of "how will this diploma serve me if I don't have options after high school?"

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