Education Wednesday: Breaking the School to Jail Pipeline

Eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline and restoring important support networks for students requires improved access to quality education. The link between incarceration and education is clear: more than 70 percent of  America’s prisoners did not complete high school and have only a 10th grade education. Addressing disparity-causing practices in our schools can no longer wait since millions of Americans being locked away impacts the cohesiveness of our communities, the prosperity of our economy, and most importantly, millions of our students because parents and guardians are absent.


Limited access to quality education can set students on the path towards incarceration before they are even out of diapers. Nationally, incarceration rates are as high as 1 in 31. In my home state of Georgia that number shoots up to 1 in 13 people behind bars. Considering these alarming high rates, it is easy to see how in many communities across the country, it is likely that many have a relative, friend, or neighbor who is locked up.

School disciplinary statistics also shine a spotlight on America’s elevated incarceration rate. Though minorities account for a smaller percentage of students enrolled in school, the Washington Post reports Latino students are nearly twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school as their White American peers. African American students are three times more likely to be removed from school. Even one incident of suspension can greatly impact success in school and diminish the odds of crossing the graduation stage. These statistics feed directly into the disproportionate number of working-age African Americans and Hispanics now in prison.


The underlying economic and racial disparities in both education and incarceration practices cannot be ignored. States that spend more money housing prisoners than educating students risk economic prosperity for future generations. Making key improvements in education could lay the necessary groundwork for addressing America’s elevated incarceration rates, including participating in well-structured early childhood education as I discuss in Education Wednesday: A Case for Universal Preschool.

Aundrea's 4 Changes in Education to Reduce Incarceration Rates

    1. Recognize the Minority-Majority: Access to adequate education continues to be skewed across class and racial lines. Yet, minorities now constitute a larger segment of our communities, tax base, workforce, and, unfortunately, the prison population. As I write in Education Wednesday: Minority Students are the New Majority, closing once and for all persistent achievement gaps calls for even greater urgency to ensure all students have a shot at academic success. By acknowledging our Minority-Majority student population and implementing sound policies in schools to empower these students,  the incarceration rate could greatly decrease.
    2. Practice restorative education vs. removal from school: Suspending and expelling students can be detrimental to future life outcomes. That's why restorative educational practices offer a new perspective to address behavioral management in schools. States are rethinking punishment in school through restorative education which focuses on renewing good relationships and developing school ethos by incorporating student-focused interventions such as peer mediation and working closely with students to build conflict resolution skills.
    3. Build stronger relationships with students: In Education Wednesday: Mentoring Towards Academic Achievement, I discuss the need for positive relationships between students and mentors, teachers, and parents. Strong relationships can change mindsets that hinder learning and boost academic success. As interaction with even one adult who cares can positively impact a student's life, we must provide a supportive foundation to help more kids reach higher academic outcomes and navigate their journey through life.
    4. Increase Community involvement: Community is an important part of students' support systems. Those who are positively involved in their community are more likely to be committed to school and less likely to commit offenses against their neighbors. Participating in after-school programs and community service can bridge lessons in school with additional mentorship that instills core values. Creating strong community-school partnerships is vital to anchoring our at-risk students.


We as educators, parents, and decision-makers cannot continue to let students fall through the cracks in school. A person's level of educational attainment directly correlates with the likelihood of going to prison. As the figures above suggest, those with the lowest level of attainment are among the most likely to be incarcerated. To change lives and take a bite out of crime, the best thing we can do is improve educational experiences for our learners, ensuring they build the skills needed to positively contribute to society.

Aundrea_Gregg-TheWiseLatinaClubAn education policy wonk at the Georgia Center of Opportunity, Aundrea Gregg holds a Master’s degree in Social Policy and Planning from the London School Of Economics and a Bachelor’s in Classical Civilizations and Political Science from Howard University. She also is a nail painting enthusiast and writer living in Atlanta, GA. Connect with Aundrea on Twitter or Google+.

Edited by: Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D.

What are some other ways we can stop crime through education?