Skip to Main Content

Schools, Prisons, and Pipelines: Fixing the toxic relationship between public education and criminal justice (June 2018): Home

by Benjamin Justice


This essay first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Choice (volume 55 | issue 10)


Since their emergence nearly two centuries ago, American public schools have worked according to a tacit social contract. Americans agreed to tax themselves for the education of other people’s children, as well as their own, in return for a set of broadly construed benefits: the advancement of the economy, political and social stability, and the reduction of crime. “With what fearful rapidity,” Horace Mann warned his readers in 1844, “a people that neglects the education of its children will descend in the scale of poverty, degradation, and crime.” (Mann, 1891, p. 444) The latter promise—that universal public schools could reduce crime, has been a popular refrain ever since.   Indeed, it has gone global. Just last year, the 13th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice affirmed its commitment to the belief that “education for all children and youth, including the eradication of illiteracy, is fundamental to the prevention of crime and corruption and to the promotion of a culture of lawfulness.…” (Declaration, p. 6). Schools versus prisons, in the institutional calculus, has been the foundational ideology of modern nation building.

Since the turn of the 21st century, however, an increasing body of scholarship has upended our assumptions about that relationship. In the United States there is, many argue, a “school-to-prison pipeline,” by which public school policies both directly and indirectly lead youth toward prison, not away from it. Zero-tolerance discipline codes, the installation of police officers and other regimes of surveillance, unequal levels of support and guidance, policies that marginalize and push out problem children, and other factors have emerged in the last few decades that can make going to school a risky proposition. While public education has long been a site of unequal support for healthy social and academic development, the scale and disparate impact of highly punitive policies, scholars argue, concentrate risk and actually push certain groups of children toward the juvenile justice system, and then to the criminal justice system.

This essay reviews scholarship on the school-to-prison pipeline. Given the complex and pervasive nature of both public education and criminal justice, the related literature is multifaceted, complex, and vast. My review will be limited to three related sets of questions. First, I seek to understand the genealogy of the school-to-prison pipeline as a cluster of historical phenomena and a label for them. When did scholars “discover” the existence of the pipeline? Where did it come from? How did the label take hold? Second, I review the most significant pipeline scholarship. As the image implies, the pipeline framework describes a series of institutional procedures and relations that are unidirectional but, importantly, pieced together by many junctions. What scholarship supports the pipeline framework? What kinds of solutions do scholars suggest for slowing its flow? Finally, my third set of questions explores the limitations of the school-to-prison pipeline framework. How is the relationship between schools and prisons not like a pipeline? What competing frameworks do scholars offer? And what do these alternate frameworks suggest about our prospects for realizing the promise of American public education? While useful for understanding the implications of particular school-related policies, I argue, the school-to-prison analogy also limits our appreciation of the ways in which dysfunction in the criminal justice system profoundly affects the social context in which schooling—and childhood—occur. I conclude by proposing three alternate models for understanding the relationship between schools and prisons.

Benjamin Justice is Professor and Chair, Department of Educational Theory, Policy, and Administration at Rutgers University.