Criminal justice policy is education policy

In a new report, Mass Incarceration and Children’s Outcomes, we argue that criminal justice policy is education policy, and should be high on educators’ lists of concerns.

Several police killings of young men in African American neighborhoods, as well as the national racial polarization exposed in the recent presidential campaign, have called increased attention to our unresolved racial inequalities, including the disproportionate numbers of African American men who are in jail or prison. In the last months of his administration, President Obama responded to excessive federal prison sentences with a stepped up rate of commutations.

President-elect Trump, in contrast, has advocated a nationwide policy of “stop-and-frisk,” a police practice concentrated in low-income minority neighborhoods that invariably leads to the arrest and eventual imprisonment of men, African American men in particular, for non-violent victimless crimes.

“Stop and frisk,” as well as excessive sentencing for minor crimes, are not primarily federal policies, and once in office, Mr. Trump will have little influence over them. These are policies and practices of local and state governments, and reform is no less realistic or urgent now than it was before the presidential election.

Discussions among education policymakers have concerned a related problem: the “school-to-prison” pipeline. The term refers to the practice of stationing police officers in schools to arrest children whose offenses once would have been handled by school officials without involvement of the criminal justice system. The term also refers to harsh and racially disparate school disciplinary policies that include “zero tolerance” and mandatory suspensions or expulsions for non-violent infractions. Students who are arrested by school police, or suspended by school officials, are more likely later to serve jail or prison time than students with similar offenses who are subject to less harsh forms of discipline.

Our new report, however, urges education policymakers and educators in states and localities to pay greater attention to the mass incarceration of young African American men, even where the incarceration does not have roots in school disciplinary practices. The evidence is overwhelming that the unjustified incarceration of African American parents, fathers especially, is an important cause of the lowered performance of their children. The numbers of children affected has grown to the point that we can reasonably infer that our criminal justice system is making a significant contribution to the racial achievement gap in both cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

We have organized this report as follows: first, we report data on the extent and growth of incarceration in the United States. Although these data are well-known to advocates of criminal justice reform, educators may not appreciate their full extent. We then describe the racial composition of prisoners, as well as data on the share of children, and of African American children in particular, who have parents in jail or prison. Next we summarize the extensive social science and epidemiological literature documenting the effect of parental incarceration on children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skill development. Our summary places special emphasis on the statistical sophistication of these studies that plausibly eliminate the possibility that the shortcomings we describe in student outcomes may be attributable to socioeconomic or demographic characteristics of the children, rather than to their parents’ present or previous incarceration. We then describe the plausible pathways by which parental incarceration influences children’s development and is an independent cause of the gap in cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes between black and white students. Finally, we summarize contemporary criminal justice reform efforts and suggest that educators who hope to raise the achievement of disadvantaged children should make such reform of state and local policies and practices their cause as well.

However implausible reform of federal policy may seem in a Trump administration (and we hope we are wrong), many more children are harmed by the incarceration of their parents in state than in federal prisons. In 2014, over 700,000 prisoners nationwide were serving sentences of a year or longer for non-violent crimes. Over 600,000 of these were in state, not federal prisons. This reality presents an opportunity, and necessity, for educators to press for change in state and local policing and criminal justice policies that will substantially benefit their students.

Read the full report, Mass Incarceration and Children’s Outcomes: Criminal Justice Policy is Education Policy.