The School-to-Prison Pipeline Works!

Criminal justice reform activists have long argued that the “school-to-prison” pipeline—the process that places children in the criminal-justice system for misbehavior in school—has a destructive effect on future outcomes. A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research gives a sense of just how destructive. According to economists Anna Aizer and Joseph Doyle Jr., juvenile incarceration—one result of getting caught in the pipeline—drastically reduces the probability of completing high school, and substantially increases the odds of adult incarceration. From the paper:

We find that juvenile incarceration reduces the probability of high school completion and increases the probability of incarceration later in life. While some of this relationship reflects omitted variables, even when we control for potential omitted variables using IV techniques, the relationships remain strong. In OLS regressions with minimal controls, those incarcerated as a juvenile are 39 percentage points less likely to graduate from high school and are 41 per- centage points more likely to have entered adult prison by age 25 compared with other public school students from the same neighborhood. Once we include demographic controls, limit our comparison group to juveniles charged with a crime in court but not incarcerated, and instrument for incarceration, juvenile incarceration is estimated to decrease high school graduation by 13 percentage points and increase adult incarceration by 22 percentage points.

One key thing to remember is that this has a dramatically disproportionate effect on African American students. If there’s one reliable fact about discipline in schools, it’s that if you’re black, you are more likely to face the harshest punishments. A 2012 report from the Department of Education gave the numbers on this: African American students accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once, and 39 percent of all expulsions, despite their much smaller population.

A second report, released earlier this year by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, found a similar result: of the one in nine middle and high-school students suspended in the 2009–2010 school year, 24 percent were African American, and they were mostly for nonviolent infractions, like lateness or violation of the dress code. Overall, African Americans are 18 percent of the total student population.

The high rate of suspension for black students—and particularly black males—has unfortunate consequences when mixed with the growing police presence in schools nationwide. Since the 1990s, there has been a surge in the number of students—disproportionately African American—who have faced arrest or misdemeanor charges for nonviolent behavior. In one Mississippi school district, for example, 33 out of every 1,000 students were arrested or referred to a juvenile detention center.

When you consider that many of these students come from low-income environments—and the extent to which childhood poverty places immense stress on physical and neurological development—the entire dynamic is doubly unfair. We’re taking some of our most vulnerable students—the ones who need the most help—criminalizing them, and placing them at high risk for failure and incarceration.

We know where this leads—a large population of men and women, mostly black, who won’t have the skills to fully integrate themselves into their communities and broader economic life. And rather than try to account for that, we—by which I mean the broad swath of Americans—will look and say, “why don’t you have more responsibility for yourself?”