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

by Benjamin Justice

Origins of the pipeline

“In recent years,” wrote Wald and Losen in the framing paper of the 2003 School-to-Prison Pipeline Research Conference, “several new terms have gained currency in public discourse to describe the cumulative impact of these inequalities and policy shifts: ‘the prison track,’ and the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’” These terms, they explained, referred to two clusters of laws and school policies. On the school side, increasingly unforgiving and punitive measures, poorly run alternative programs, and outplacements pushed children out of school. Another cluster of aggressive and unforgiving juvenile and criminal justice policies regarding juvenile misconduct pulled these same children toward prison. The scale and the racially disproportionate impact of these clusters constituted in a major social crisis, rooted in severe institutional dysfunction. “These phrases,” Wald and Losen explained, “refer to a journey through school that is increasingly punitive and isolating for its travelers....The adult prison and juvenile justice systems are riddled with children who have travelled through the school-to-prison-pipeline”(Wald and Losen, 2003, pp. 3–4).

The pipeline metaphor stuck. Simkins et al. (2004) published “The School to Prison Pipeline for Girls,” which was followed in Christle et al.’s seminal (2005) “Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline” and Constance Curry’s (2005) “Resegregated Spaces: The Schools to Prison Pipeline.” Thereafter the pipeline metaphor appeared regularly in scholarly article titles—a dozen in 2010 alone, and at least nineteen (as well as three books) in 2017. The pipeline metaphor leapt from academia to popular discourse, too. Since 2003, over five hundred newspaper articles have used the term in their titles.1

Activists and politicians took notice. Reform groups like the Advancement Project (2005), ACLU (2008), and NAACP (2011) explicitly targeted the school-to-prison pipeline as an object of reform. In 2012 a US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee conducted hearings on the school-to-prison pipeline (R. J. Skiba, Arredondo, and Williams, 2014). The pipeline’s journey from heuristic to policy object was complete. 

The meteoric rise of the “pipeline” metaphor should not obscure the broader, longer-standing body of scholarship whence it came. Writing in 2002 for example, Skiba et al. (2002) observed that for twenty-five years, researchers had found disproportionately harsh punishments in public schools for black children generally, and black boys in particular. An even longer view shows that public education has never served people of African descent equally or well in allocating social outcomes (Anderson, 1988; Klarman, 2004; Moss, 2009). But the explosion in suspension rates was new, and worsening. In 1972, for example, suspension rates for k-12 white, Latino, and black students stood at 3 percent, 3 percent, and 6 percent respectively. By 2012 these rates reached 5 percent, 7 percent, and 16 percent (Losen, Hodson, Keith II, Morrison, and Shakti, 2015, p. 2).

Schools are places where children go so they can learn how to behave in public. We should not, therefore, be surprised that for as long as there have been schools there have been efforts to change (and sanction) their behavior (Crews and Counts, 1997). There have also been disproportionately harsh consequences for black transgression—whether in the context of enslavement or under the educational regimes of Jim Crow and white supremacy that followed. What characterizes the current “pipeline” era are the brutal, life-long consequences of children’s misbehavior that have been bureaucratized and institutionalized in direct connection to compulsory, universal public education. Rather than creating good citizens, public schools are systematically and disproportionately creating criminals (P. J. Hirschfield, 2018).

How did this happen? Historians have offered varying accounts. One account focuses on the internal politics of schools. Using Los Angeles Public Schools as a case study, Kafka (2011) locates the origins of the school-to-prison pipeline within the politics of teaching and school administration. Beginning in the 1950s, popular culture and politics expressed growing anxiety over youth crime—an anxiety exacerbated both by the urban racial crisis and the crime wave that swept the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s. Teachers did not want responsibility for the crisis, and leveraged their unions to shift responsibility for school discipline away from the classroom. In the context of racial integration on white terms, parents of color, too, were concerned about teacher’s traditional authority to punish children and, Kafka argues, also supported centralization as a means to assure greater fairness. This centralization was accompanied by a shift in the framing of school discipline from a developmental approach to a school safety/deterrence approach, including suspension, expulsion, and more aggressive redirection to ineffective and unequal juvenile detention centers. In a vicious cycle, these new policies exacerbated crime statistics by elevating the reporting of poor behavior and pushing angry kids out of school into the streets—necessitating the placement of police in schools and further increasing reported crime consequences for bad behavior. While “zero tolerance” approaches to school discipline would gain national attention and federal support a generation later, Kafka argues, the LA model was a blueprint. Two shortcomings of Kafka’s account are the problem of generalizing the Los Angeles case (which was already exceptional in its history of policing) and endogeneity of her account of school discipline policy.

External context matters. Since the 1970s, American criminal justice has experienced an unprecedented rise in incarceration rates. Historically, Americans locked up between 100 and 150 people per 100,000 in jails and state and federal prisons. Between 1970 and 2010, that rate exploded to over 750 per 100,000. The scale and racially disparate impact of this phenomenon have not only been unprecedented in American history; they have been unprecedented in world history. Described variously as a “plague,” a “collapse” and a “new Jim Crow”, mass incarceration has transformed the American criminal justice system to something completely out of alignment with a democratic society  (Drucker, 2011; Stuntz, 2011; Alexander, 2010). Mass incarceration has had devastating consequences for families, communities, and in particular African American men (Clear, 2007; Pattillo, Weiman, and Western, 2006). Scholars differ in their analysis of the mechanisms by which this occurred: Alexander (2010) emphasizes “Rockefeller-style,” zero tolerance drug laws. Stuntz (2011) emphasizes a prosecutorial revolution that has greatly diminished the power of defendants and juries. John Pfaff (2017) refutes Alexander’s claims and agrees with Stuntz, but also considers the perverse incentives created by the incoherent structures of criminal justice across (and among) levels of government. (For example, municipal police make arrests, but states pay for prisons.)

How did public school discipline policies relate to the rise of mass incarceration across the United States? Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime (2016), approaches school policy exogenously: as a weapon marshaled in a broader “war on crime” that was in many respects a war on black Americans. Hinton shows how the federal government encouraged states to invest in particular framings of youth crime and crime prevention, increasing policing of schools and school grounds, rerouting problem children into racially unequal constellations of juvenile justice, community rehab centers, and foster care—while simultaneously inflating perceptions of black crime through use of biased statistics. In a single year (1975), the number of black inmates in California prisons rose by 10 percent as a direct result of the increased youth contact with criminal justice (p. 240). States also began a twenty-year assault on minimum ages for criminal prosecution, treating youth as adults at younger and younger ages.

By the end of the 1970s, Hinton argues, public schools were locked into a cycle of self-fulfilling prophesy: segregated and unequal schools, combined with aggressive policing and dead-end juvenile justice alternatives, would pave the way for increasingly negative and disparate effects for children of color (p. 241), while the popular perception was that youth—especially black youth—were out of control. The cumulative effects of this revolution in law enforcement, mass incarceration (which was a deliberate strategy) and aggressive and unequal juvenile justice, “successfully removed a generation of African American men from their communities (p. 249).”

Regardless of differing historical interpretations, scholars agree that over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, school discipline became increasingly punitive, reflecting a broader cultural turn toward “law and order” policing, demonization of the poor, and more punitive sentencing laws (Wald and Losen, 2003). The relationship between school discipline policy and criminal justice took a significantly negative turn during the 1990s, when the federal government borrowed a strategy from the drug wars, known as “zero tolerance,” and applied it to student behavior in schools.  In 1994, President Clinton signed the Gun Free Schools Act, which required states to impose a one-year expulsion for any student who brought a gun to school. By the end of the 1990s, federal policy encouraged (or required) states to adopt zero tolerance policies, and the Department of Justice created grant incentives to put police in schools (Curtis, 2013; James and McCallion, 2013). School suspension and expulsion rates shot up. Many school districts expanded on these initiatives to apply zero-tolerance approaches to a host of other discipline offenses, large and small (Skiba, Mediratta, and Rausch, 2016; Skiba et al., 2002). The Columbine High School mass killing further spurred local political demand for zero tolerance policies (Curran, 2017; Peake, 2015). 


1. According to a title search of “school to prison pipeline” in the Search Articles+ online database provided by Yale University. Accessed by the author on Feb. 13, 2018.

Works Cited