Reversing the “School-to-Prison Pipeline”? Part 2: The Debate Over Mass Incarceration

Should We Decarcerate?

Since the start of the War on Drugs, the United States has adopted and enforced policies that have led to mass incarceration, with nearly half of all incarcerations due to drug crimes.1 According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the rate of incarceration in the United States outpaces every other nation on earth, and it comes at a high cost: “With nearly two million people behind bars at any given time, the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. We spend about $182 billion every year—not to mention the significant social cost—to lock up nearly 1% of our adult population.”2 

The question is whether these costs are worth it.  

Some scholars say no, pointing to dehumanizing effects and power imbalances created by mass incarceration. Kelly Lytle Hernández, a professor of history, African American studies, and urban planning at the University of California Los Angeles, argues that the racial disparity in mass incarceration is intended to control specific communities: “Incarceration operates as a means of purging, removing, caging, containing, erasing, disappearing, and eliminating targeted populations from land, life, and society in the United States.”3

But while there are a growing number of calls to end mass incarceration, there are those who believe the high rate of incarceration is a good and necessary thing. Barry Latzer, a retired criminal justice professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice CUNY, argues that mass incarceration was a rational and—all things considered—beneficial response to the “crime wave” between the 1970s and 1990s, when crime rates were far higher than they are today.4 

Rafael Mangual, head of research at the Manhattan Institute, argues that the push to reduce incarceration levels will lead to the release of people who are likely to reoffend in the communities already most vulnerable to crime, unintentionally causing harm to the very communities prison reform advocates intend to help.5 

WATCH: The Heritage Foundation’s Charles “Cully” Stimson Interviews Barry Latzer and Rafael Mangual

Others, like political scientist Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, are even more blunt: “We figured out what to do with criminals. Innovations in policing helped, but the key insight was an old one: Lock ’em up.”6 Retired UCLA Professor James Q. Wilson concludes, “Putting people in prison is the single most important thing we’ve done [to decrease crime].”7 

The rise of mass incarceration did, after all, parallel the reduction in crime rates.  

This belief in the beneficial impact of mass incarceration has been challenged in recent years. Don Stemen, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Loyola University Chicago, summarizes the conclusions of the Prison Paradox project:It may seem intuitive that increasing incarceration would further reduce crime: incarceration not only prevents future crimes by taking people who commit crime ‘out of circulation’ (incapacitation), but it also may dissuade people from committing future crimes out of fear of punishment (deterrence). In reality, however, increasing incarceration rates has a minimal impact on reducing crime and entails significant costs.”8 

Numerous studies have concluded that incapacitation and deterrence have led to only marginal (6-12 percent) reductions in property crime and are responsible for as little as zero percent of the reduction in violent crime over the past two decades. These studies attribute the reduction in crime since the 1990s to other social and economic factors, including “increased wages, increased employment, increased graduation rates, increased consumer confidence, increased law enforcement personnel, and changes in policing strategies.“ Some scholars have even connected the decrease in crime since the 1990s with the transition from leaded to unleaded gasoline between 1992 and 2002.9 

Regardless of one’s position on the effectiveness of incarceration on crime rates, what is not in dispute is that the United States locks up a higher number of its own citizens than any other country in the world, and that there is an unmistakable, decades-long correlation between low graduation rates and mass incarceration.10 Those who warn against the threats of decarceration do so on the belief that when those who have been convicted of crimes are released, they are very likely to commit more crimes in the future and end up back in jail or prison. The national rate of return to the criminal-legal system after incarceration—called “recidivism”—is 76.6 percent.11 

There are others, however, who point to a way to reduce recidivism dramatically: education and mentorship programs, both inside prison and working with those who have returned from incarceration. In Part 3 of this series, we will examine the impact of prison education programs which attempt to reverse the “school-to-prison pipeline.”  

Discussion Questions 

  1. Do you think incarceration should primarily be a tool for punishment or rehabilitation? 
  2. What does rehabilitation mean? What should be the standard for returning from incarceration? 
  3. Do you think the level of incarceration in the United States is a problem? If not, why not? If so, how high a priority is this issue for you? 

Related Posts

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Adam Zyglis
[1] Federal Bureau of Prisons:
[2] Prison Policy Initiative:,1%25%20of%20our%20adult%20population.
[3] Lytle Hernandez, Kelly. “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965.” 2017.
[4] Heritage Foundation:
[5] Ibid.
[6] The Sentencing Project:
[7] Ibid.
[8] Vera Institute of Justice:
[9] Vera Institute of Justice:
[10] Bureau of Justice Statistics:
[11] Harvard Political Review:


Reversing the “School-to-Prison Pipeline”? Part 1: Defining the School-to-Prison Pipeline

What Do People Mean When They Talk About the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

For decades, many researchers who study the public education system have discussed the impact of the “school-to-prison pipeline”: escalating punishments, primarily in “high-poverty, high-minority schools,” intended to deter unwanted student behaviors leading to missed class time, a lost sense of belonging within the school, and often a failure to complete a high school diploma.1 These punishments include in- and out-of-school suspension, expulsion, and in some cases corporal (physical) punishment and even arrest.

Studies have shown that harsh and unforgiving school punishments—like “zero-tolerance” policies for subjective behaviors such as “willful defiance”—directly link to reduced likelihood of graduation, which correlates significantly with a higher likelihood of incarceration.2 A comprehensive survey of these studies ”tied exclusionary practices to a host of negative outcomes including lower levels of attendance, self-esteem, academic performance, and graduation as well as higher levels of anxiety, dropout, delinquency, victimization, and arrest.”3

This link between exclusionary discipline—disciplinary practices that isolate a student or remove them from school entirely—and incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color, especially Black men:

“Many studies show if a student is suspended at a younger grade, they are more likely to not finish school … they’re pushed out of school, and they’re more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. If you are a Black man in this country without a high school degree, your chances of ending up in prison at some point in your life are two-thirds. So, two-thirds of all Black men without a high school degree will be in prison at some point in their lives, one-third at any one time.”4

LISTEN: “The Movement to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” from “Have You Heard?”

For nearly half a century, historians of the criminal-legal system have noted that prisons and schools share troublingly similar disciplinary practices.5 These similarities were clearly evident to rapper Meek Mill, who reports getting disciplined in school for subjective behaviors like “acting up,” which eventually led to his dropping out. But he noticed another unsettling similarity between the education and incarceration systems when he walked into prison for the first time:

“I was put in disciplinary schools. It was like a jail. You get strip-searched before you go in, fingerprinted every day. … In other words, it was early conditioning for what everybody assumed your future was going to be. When I finally went to jail, I already knew everybody. Everybody I went to school with was in the jail.”6

For researchers and policymakers who focus on the school-to-prison pipeline, Mill’s experience is an example of how it “forms a key part of a larger system of criminalization and mass incarceration”—a young person experiences harsh penalties for minor infractions, alienating them from the school community and reinforcing an expectation of future incarceration; leaves school without graduating, in part due to the disciplinary approach and low self-worth; and ends up incarcerated after getting involved in crime.7

READ: “Exploring the School-to-Prison Pipeline: How School Suspensions Influence Incarceration During Young Adulthood,” from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences

Many schools themselves have some of the markings of prisons, with armed police officers stationed on campus. Morgan Craven, who serves as national director of policy, advocacy, and community engagement at the Intercultural Development Research Association, points out, “Millions of children who attend public schools in this country attend schools where there are police officers in their schools but there’s not a single full-time counselor or social worker.”8

This trend of funding in-school police officers but not counselors or social workers also has a racial component: Warren reports that a “quarter-million [students] are referred to police officers in schools every year; over 60,000 are arrested every year; Black students are three times as likely as white students to be arrested in school.”9 The Advancement Project’s extensive review of the research on student behaviors concludes that this racial disparity is not due to more disruptive behaviors by students of color:

“Although students of color do not misbehave more than white students, they are disproportionately policed in schools: nationally, Black and Latinx youth made up over 58% of school-based arrests while representing only 40% of public school enrollment, and Black and Brown students were more likely to attend schools that employed school resource officers (SROs), but not school counselors.”10

The connection between lower educational attainment and higher likelihood to enter the criminal-legal system has been long established, and it is a significant contributor to the rise in incarceration in the United States over the past several decades.11 In Part 2 of this series, we will look at the debates around mass incarceration and the question of whether decarceration—intentionally reducing the prison population—should be a priority, and if so, whether it can be done without creating more crime.

Discussion Questions

  1. What, if anything, have you heard or learned about the “school-to-prison pipeline” in the past?
  2. How, if at all, does this issue show up in your community?
  3. Do you think that exclusionary discipline practices like suspension and expulsion should be discontinued? Why or why not?
  4. Who should decide how best to discipline students? Elected lawmakers, youth psychology and development experts, teachers and school administrators, parents, or others?
  5. What are other approaches to maintaining order in schools that don’t include harsh punishments like “zero-tolerance” policies?
  6. How high a priority is the school-prison-pipeline issue for you?

How to Get Involved

Related Posts

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Anastasya Eliseeva
[1] Wald, Johanna, and Daniel J. Losen. “Defining and Redirecting a School-to-Prison Pipeline.” New Directions for Youth Development. No. 99. Fall 2003.
[2] Warren, Mark. Willful Defiance: The Movement to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Oxford University Press. 2022.
[3] Hemez, Paul, John J. Brent, and Thomas J. Mowen. “Exploring the School-to-Prison Pipeline: How School Suspensions Influence Incarceration During Young Adulthood.” Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice. Vol. 18, Issue 3. 2019.
[4] Warren, Mark. Interview Conducted by Jennifer Berkshire. “Have You Heard?”]
[5] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 1975 (Gallimard, in French). 1977 (Pantheon Books, in English).
[6] Mill, Meek. Interview Conducted by Nikole Hannah-Jones for New York Times Magazine. “The 25 Songs that Matter Right Now.” 2019.
[7] Warren, Mark. Willful Defiance.
[8] Craven, Morgan. Interview Conducted by Dr. Terrance L Green for “Racially Just Schools.” 2022.
[9] Warren, Mark. “Have You Heard?”
[10] Advancement Project Alliance for Educational Justice, Dignity in Schools Campaign, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. “Police in Schools Are Not the Answer to School Shootings.” Originally Released Jan. 2013. Rereleased Mar. 2018.
[11] Bureau of Justice Statistics. “Correctional Populations Report Lower Educational Attainment than Those in the General Population. An Estimated 40% of State Prison Inmates, 27% of Federal Inmates, 47% of Inmates in Local Jails, and 31% of Those Serving Probation Sentences Had Not Completed High School or its Equivalent While about 18% of the General Population Failed to Attain High School Graduation.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: “Education and Correctional Populations.” 2003.


History and Civics Scores Drop in The Nation’s Report Card

Glasshouse/Getty Images

At Close Up, building civic proficiency and comprehension is at the heart of everything we do. Learn more about how we support students, teachers, and civic literacy through our programs, professional development, curriculum, and classroom resources.

On May 3, the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics released its civics and U.S. history data from the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Often referred to as The Nation’s Report Card, the NAEP is given to a representative sample of eighth-grade students across the country every four years and covers a variety of school subjects. Data from the 2022 tests found that scores in both civics and U.S. history have significantly declined since 2018.1

Civics scores dropped three points on average for both boys and girls, from 153 to 150 on a 300-point scale.2 Only 22 percent of students were found to be at or above a “proficient” level for civics comprehension; of the whole, 69 percent of students were at or above a “basic” level of understanding, and 31 percent were below basic.3 These scores are nearly the same as those from the civics assessment in 1998, the first year it was given.4

Scores for U.S. history, which began declining in 2014, continued to fall across the four thematic areas measured by the NAEP: American democracy, culture, technology, and world role.5 The average score dropped five points, from 263 to 258, out of a possible 500 points.6 Two out of every five students were below a basic level of understanding, meaning it is unlikely that they could “identify simple historical concepts in primary or secondary sources.”7

Lower-performing students were generally worse off in both subjects when compared to their peers.8 And higher-performing students were twice as confident in their ability to explain political processes, knowledge of current events, and belief in themselves about their ability to make a difference in their community.9

In response to the NAEP data, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona pointed to the “profound impact the pandemic had on student learning in subjects beyond math and reading.”10 Online instruction and prolonged absences from the classroom disrupted learning for millions of students, resulting in a lack of support for struggling students, a rise in disruptive behavior, and ongoing mental health struggles.11 Students who fell behind still struggle to make up what they have lost. This problem is compound by teacher shortages, limited school funding, and a lack of resources and technology.

The results of the Nation’s Report Card come as young people are coming of age and forming their identities in a polarized political climate. A New York Times survey of 604 teenagers from April 2021 found that although many feel disillusioned amid growing partisanship and inaction, they are still motivated to involve themselves in politics and government.12 Students are eager to learn about U.S. history, engage in political discussions, stay current with the news, and take action themselves.

However, some observers point to data collected by the literary society PEN America, which has documented 306 bills introduced in 45 states since January 2021 that aim to restrict what students can be taught in schools.13 In general, these bills target discussion of such topics as slavery, systemic racism, gender, and sexuality. Twenty-six have become law.14

A 2022 Florida law led the state to heavily scrutinize textbooks and courses for alleged biases.15 Earlier this year, the state rejected a newly created Advanced Placement course on African American studies, saying the course as it stood was “not historically accurate” and lacked “educational value.”16 In Texas, meanwhile, a 2022 law bars courses from having students directly engage with their elected officials and governments.17 Class assignments in which students apply their civics lessons to the real world in a culminating project—like creating a petition, lobbying for an issue, contacting elected officials, or speaking on behalf of a city council—are no longer allowed to use school time or resources.

Secretary Cardona referenced this trend in his statement on the low NAEP scores, stressing that now is not “the time to limit what students learn in U.S. history and civics classes.” He underscored the importance of students having opportunities to learn about their country and government, adding, “Banning history books and censoring educators from teaching these important subjects does our students a disservice and will move America in the wrong direction.”18

Discussion Questions

  1. Nearly half of participating eighth-graders said they took a class that focused mainly on civics and government.19 Another 68 percent reported taking a class mainly focused on U.S. history.20 Have you taken a civics class in school? A U.S. history class? If so, what topics did they cover?
  2. One in four students who took the NAEP said their school had shifted to remote learning during the 2020-2021 school year due to COVID-19.21 Did your school require remote learning or introduce a hybrid model during the pandemic? If so, how long did it last?
  3. Have you seen anything in the news about bans or reviews of school books, lessons, or curriculum subjects?
  4. What are some factors you think contribute to declining civics and U.S. history scores?
  5. What are some consequences that have or could come as a result of this trend?
  6. What level of government (local/state/national) do you think is best suited to help students succeed? How can it help improve students’ knowledge and skills?

Other Resources

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Glasshouse/Getty Images
[1] National Center for Education Statistics:
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] National Center for Education Statistics:
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] National Center for Education Statistics:
[9] National Center for Education Statistics:
[10] U.S. Department of Education:
[11] U.S. Government Accountability Office:
[12] New York Times:
[13] PEN America:
[14] Ibid.
[15] New York Times:
[16] New York Times:
[17] The Guardian:
[18] U.S. Department of Education:
[19] National Center for Education Statistics:
[20] National Center for Education Statistics:
[21] National Center for Education Statistics: