Education Health Care Juvenile Justice Pretrial Detention/Release Prison

Economics and Kids’ Brains, Pretrial Successes, and Overpaid Prison Doctors


Socioeconomic status plays a role in the development of certain parts of kids’ brains associated with memory, learning, and stress response, according to a Columbia University report.

Youth Today’s James Swift has the story. Here’s a clip:

According to the study, researchers observed a correlation between the education and income level of parents and the development of several areas of their children’s brains – in particular, the areas vital to stress reception, learning and memorization.

“Socioeconomic disparities in childhood are associated with remarkable differences in cognitive and socio-emotional development during a time when dramatic changes are occurring in the brain,” the report states.
Using a broad base of subjects, from families that lived at the poverty threshold to families that made more than $100,000 annually, researchers found that the hippocampi – the portion of the brain essential in memorization and learning functions – of children living with parents with higher incomes had a larger “volume” than those in subjects raised by parents with lower incomes. Similarly, researchers found that the amygdalae – the portion of the brain that processes stress – of children living with parents with more educational experiences had lower “volumes” than those in children raised by parents with less educational experiences.

The report, which is behind a pay wall, seems to focus on family income and parents’ education levels. The larger picture, however, points to the fact that children in poorer families with lower education levels are faced with more trauma than their more affluent counterparts.

In a phenomenal September episode of This American Life, host Ira Glass looks at, among other things, the relationship between brain development and education. About a third of the way through the show, Glass introduces SF pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, who explains why early childhood trauma stunts cognitive growth. Here’s his introduction to Burke’s work:

It’s well-documented that poor children do worse on tests and worse in school than better-off ones. This is the so-called achievement gap.

What this new science seems to indicate is that what is holding these children back is not poverty. It’s not the lack of money or resources in their homes. It’s stress. If you grew up in a poor household, it is more likely to be a household the just stresses you out in ways that kids in better-off homes are not stressed out. And that stress prevents you from developing these non-cognitive skills.

Be sure to listen to the whole thing—it’s important and we’ll definitely be coming back to these issues.


Pretrial release programs are seeing success in the Bay Area, with a reported 97% of San Francisco participants showing up to their court dates. Because of the developed pretrial programs, SF boasts jail populations far below capacity, unlike…you know…LA. Advocates say the release of qualified defendants awaiting trial would ease CA jail overcrowding, save taxpayer dollars, and allow nonviolent detainees to continue providing for their families while they wait.

The SF Chronicle’s Marisa Lagos has the story. Here’s a clip:

Advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union and some Democratic lawmakers, say the programs promote both public safety and justice by using scientific evaluations to help judges decide whether it is safe to release a defendant before they go to trial. The current bail system, they say, favors wealth and strands low-income people behind bars because they cannot afford bail amounts. They also argue that a defendant who gets out of jail is less likely to accept a plea deal and has a better chance of an acquittal or a shorter sentence if they go to trial.

Opponents, including the bail bond industry and some law enforcement and victims rights groups, say defendants pose a lesser flight risk when they have put up money for a bail bond and that pretrial programs pose a risk to public safety, because they do not focus on the crime a person is charged with.

Under the programs, nonviolent defendants who qualify for pretrial release are either freed on their own recognizance – that is, only a promise to appear, though often there are restrictions on their behavior – or placed on supervised release, which can range from mandated group therapy to probation-like check-ins or electronic monitoring.

In San Francisco, for example, someone placed on supervised release may have to go to an anger management group once a week until the case is adjudicated and will have a case manager checking in to make sure that person appears in court.

Supporters believe the programs help counties better manage overcrowded jails. Jail populations in some counties have increased since Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment program started a year ago. Under the program, judges sentence some offenders to jails who in the past would have gone to state prisons.

But while some counties have overcrowded jails, San Francisco has been able to keep its jail population well below capacity for years, officials say, in part because of its 15-year-old pretrial release program.

“Last year, we released about 1,300 (pretrial defendants). … Our cases are predicated on public safety, and by and large, our folks are indigent,” said Will Leong, director of the city’s Pretrial Diversion Project, who said that as many as 97 percent of participants show up for their court date. “If they could afford to bail out, they do so before we can get to them.”


A 2001 class-action lawsuit (Plata v. Schwarzenegger) against the State of California over the ghastly quality of medical care in the state’s 33 prisons resulted in California’s prison health care system being handed over to a federal receiver in 2005 after the court found that things were SO bad that they violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (cruel and unusual punishment). But nothing is ever simple. And so it appears one of the unintended consequences was that the receiver’s unchecked power to set medical staff’s pay grades and make hiring decisions seems have sent him off the rails. The average salary of CA prison doctors last year was nearly $379,000, with the highest salary paid to a Salinas psychiatrist to the tune of over $800,000.

ABC News has the AP story. Here’s how it opens:

A doctor at California Medical Facility was paid more than $410,000 last year, while a registered nurse at High Desert State Prison made nearly $236,000 — more than twice the statewide average in both cases.

A pharmacist at Corcoran State Prison was paid more than $196,000, nearly double what is typical across the state.

Compensation for medical providers has soared in the prison system since a federal judge seized control of inmate health care in 2006 and appointed an overseer with the power to hire and set pay levels.

As the official begins to wind down his oversight, the medical hiring and salary increases have helped lead to an improvement in inmate care, but it has increased the bill for taxpayers too.

It has also led to criticism that the official — called a receiver — provided a “Cadillac” level of care for convicted felons. A state review found that only Texas pays its state prison doctors more that California.

“The problem that we had is that the receiver was not accountable to anybody,” said former state Sen. George Runner, a Republican who has frequently criticized the program.

“So the receiver could just do or choose to spend whatever amount of money he thought was necessary to solve his problem, and unfortunately now the state is stuck with that,” he said.

The receiver for medical care, J. Clark Kelso, said the state has been free to collectively bargain health care providers’ salaries since a court order increasing their wages expired three years ago.

The receiver’s goal was to correct a prison medical system that was ruled unconstitutional for its substandard care and, at one point, contributed to an inmate death each week through negligence or malfeasance.

To do that, the receivership increased salaries, created new positions at high pay and hired hundreds of employees to fill longtime vacancies.

Total spending on medical, dental and mental health care for inmates, numbering 124,700, has more than doubled over the last decade, from $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2003-04 to a projected $2.3 billion this year.


  • “What this new science seems to indicate is that what is holding these children back is not poverty. It’s not the lack of money or resources in their homes. It’s stress.”

    Call it whatever you want or make whatever excuses for bigger government controlling individual lives, but it’s the real world, always has been, and always will be. Short study — kids get hurt from stupid parents who make bad choices.

  • I didn’t need a study to tell me growing up poor and in a bad neighborhood with an alcoholic father was a disadvantage for a kid.

    Who would have known being able to afford a nice home, better education, music lessons, dance classes, sports activities, summer camp, private tutors, and etc. would help a kids devolpment.

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