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Mutually Reinforcing: Mass Incarceration and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

30 November 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist


Blog-STPP-500x280-V01Current criminal justice and education policies and practices have led to the United States to incarcerate more people than any other country, with disturbing racial inequity.

More on the ACLU of Utah’s work on the School-to-Prison Pipeline >>

There are more adult African Americans under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850 (1). Yes, you read that right. Currently, the United States’ criminal justice system relies heavily on mass incarceration, with disturbing racial inequity. Current criminal justice policies and practices have led to the United States to incarcerate more people than any other country.

Mass incarceration and the School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP) are closely related. The underlying philosophy behind mass incarceration has infiltrated into schools. Also, mass incarceration harms communities in a way that puts students at risk of entering the STPP, creating a cycle.

A snap shot of mass incarceration in the United States (for more information see November’s Reading Corner): the United States contains 5% of the world’s population but almost 25% of the world’s prisoners (2). Between 1970 and 2009, the United States’ prison population grew by more than 700%. This rate of growth is a much faster pace than our population’s growth and crime rates (3). The trend of mass incarceration has led to the boom of the private prison industry. The private prison industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry that benefits and depends on the profits off of mass incarceration, which incentivizes over incarceration. In the large growth in incarceration from 1990 to 2009, the private prison industry grew by more than 1600% (4).

The mentality of being “Tough on Crime” that led to mass incarceration in the adult system is the same type of mentality of policymakers who have made zero-tolerance policies. The idea of zero-tolerance school discipline policies can be traced to the treatment of drugs by U.S. Attorney Peter Nunez when he started the program of impounding seagoing vessels carrying any amount of drugs in the 1980’s (5). The term and philosophy of zero-tolerance then spread to schools. Tough on Crime, similarly to zero-tolerance policies, means being absolutist in the treatment of misbehavior. The Tough on Crime philosophy has led to over-incarceration; zero-tolerance policies have lead to a large push out of students of color out of school and into the criminal and juvenile justice system. Longitudinal studies indicate that between 1/3 to 1/2 of students can expect to be excluded from school between kindergarten and the twelfth grade in one year (6). For black males, almost 70% percent of them will receive at least one suspension or expulsion during their K-12 years (7). The similar philosophy behind mass incarceration and STPP, has led to similar problems, such as racial disparities.

current prison pop graphMass incarceration and STPP are also similar in how they disproportionately affect people of color. In Utah, according to the research done by the Pew Charitable Trust for the criminal justice reform currently in process in Utah, black people in are disproportionately incarcerated. They are only 1% of the population but are 7% of Utah prisoners. Hispanic people in Utah are 13% of Utah’s population but are 19% of prisoners.

On the STPP side of things: In Utah, a study finds that black students are disciplined more than three times more than expected. American Indian students are three and a half time more likely to receive a disciplinary action than any other racial group (8).

It is no accident that we are seeing more students of color pushed into the criminal and/or juvenile justice system, seeing mass incarceration, and seeing struggling schools. They are the result of deliberate policy decisions. The result of the Tough on Crime movement, prioritizing incarceration, and embracing zero-tolerance philosophy and policies as discussed by civil rights advocate, professor of law, and bestselling author, Michelle Alexander:

we now see the results of those choices. And the result is poor kids, particularly poor kids of color, growing up in a system that is designed for them to fail.

While they’re not given meaningful educational opportunities and they’re targeted by police for routine stops and frisks and searches — treated like potential criminals, even within their own schools and classrooms — doing time ends up seeming more like an inevitable stage of one’s life, rather than a reflection of any personal choices one might make (Skelton).

Mass incarceration hurts students in other ways that result in a cyclical system of disenfranchisement. According to the Fragile Families Study, which tracked about 5000 children born between 1998 and 2000, and their parents, children of fathers who are incarcerated, are less likely to have the necessary behavioral skills to function in classrooms by age 5 and are more likely to be placed in Special Education. Keep in mind that there are 1.2 million parents incarcerated in the United States (9). The study also found that, five-year-old boys of incarcerated fathers were dramatically worse "non-cognitive readiness": meaning staying on task, paying attention, and keeping emotions under control (10). The impact was the equivalent of missing several months of school. Black sons of incarcerated fathers were 2 months behind their non-incarcerated peers. White sons of incarcerated fathers were 4 months behind other white students (11).

Another study, that was nationally representative and longitudinal, examined the association between incarceration of any household member and academic outcomes of youth. The findings of this study:

  • Youth with a household member incarcerated had significantly worse academic outcomes when compared with the rest of the sample.
  • There was a significant association between having a household member incarcerated and failure to graduate high school and dropping out of high school for one month or longer and returning, controlling for other variables.
  • Youth with a sibling incarcerated was significantly associated with higher likelihood of failure to graduate high school.
  • Having an extended household member (cousin, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or non-relative) incarcerated was significantly associated with higher chance of dropping out and failure to graduate high school (12).

 

This study is troubling because through previous discussions we know that dropping out of school puts a person in higher risk of entering the criminal and juvenile justice system as well as disadvantaging them for the rest of their life. Having a criminal record will follow a person for the rest of their life, “authorizing legal discrimination against you in employment, housing, access to education, public benefits” (13). These studies illustrate how some students are put on a more disadvantaged path than others and create a mutually reinforcing relationship between mass incarceration and STPP.

School discipline is the key point in the STPP. Reform would bring dramatic improvements in the opportunities and treatment of students of color and of other disadvantaged groups. However, seeing the connection with other systems of inequity should remind us that STPP ties into other issues that also need to be addressed. Getting rid of zero-tolerance policies, requiring training for School Resource Officers, and instituting PBIS and restorative justice based consequences (to be discussed in a future blog post) are a necessary part of ending the STPP. However, implicit bias (to be discussed in-depth in a future post), explicit bias, institutional racism, structural racism, as seen in mass incarceration, are still problems to be confronted if we want to effectively stop STPP.

The good news is that Utah has taken a step in the right direction when the Commission of Criminal and Juvenile Justice unanimously passed on recommendations for criminal justice reform during the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. These recommendations conservatively predict, when taken together, to avert nearly the entire anticipated growth in our prisons over the next 20 years. As an indirect result, these changes could positively affect the STPP and benefits our community if the package of recommendation is passed by the Utah state legislature. For the sake of our community and especially our young ones, let’s hope, organize, and work to get these recommendation passed.

You can contact Public Policy Advocate, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., if you would like to take action around criminal justice reform.

Look out for posts on the costs of the School-to-Prison pipeline in December!

To sign-up for email alerts on national and local School-to-Prison pipeline news/events as well as alerts to new content on the Breaking Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline blog series, contact Racial Justice Associate, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Works Cited:

(1) Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New Press, 2010.

(2) Barrett, Devlin. Obama Administratin Plan Overhaul to Cut Prison Population. Ending Cradle to Prison Pipeline. November 2014 <>.

(3) 2011. November 2014 <htpp://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/inc_FederalPrisonFactsheet_March2011.pdf>.

(4) 2011. November 2014 <http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/bankingonbondage_2011102.pdf>.

(5) American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. "Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations." 2008.

(6) Losen, Daniel, Damon Hewitt and Ivory Todson. "Eliminating Excessive and Unfair Exclusionary Discipline in Schools Policy Recommendations for Reducing Disparities." Discipline Disparities Research to Practice Collaborative, 2014.

(7) Shollenberger. Closing the school discipline gap: Research for policymakers. New York: Teachers College Press, 1997.

(8) Albers, Jordin, et al. From Fingerpaint to Fingerprints. The University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. Salt Lake City, 2014.

(9) Reilly, Katie. Sesame Street Reaches out to 2.7 American Children with an Incarcerated Parent. 2013 2013. November 2014 <http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/21/sesame-street-reaches-out-to-2-7-million-american-children-with-an-incarcerated-parent/>. 

(10,11) Lind, Dara. Boys with incarcerated fathers are screwed before they even get to school. 24 April 2014. November 2014 <http://www.vox.com/2014/4/24/5647660/boys-incarcerated-fathers-school-behavior-prison-pipeline>.

(12) Skelton, Rebekah. February 2013. November 2014 <http://rebekahskelton.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-school-to-prison-pipeline-growing.html>.

(13) University of Virginia. Incarceration in the household: Impact on children. <http://curry.virginia.edu/research/projects/incarceration-in-the-household>.