#25. Studies Document Links between Education, Incarceration, and Recidivism

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Two research studies document links between education, incarceration, and recidivism, as covered in articles published by ColorLines, Usable Knowledge, and Citizen Truth.

In September 2019, ColorLines reported that attending a school with a high suspension rate is associated with an increased likelihood of being arrested and a decreased likelihood of enrolling in a four-year college. The ColorLines article reported findings from a study titled “The School to Prison Pipeline: Long-Run Impacts of School Suspensions on Adult Crime” issued by the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research. As Emily Boudreau reported for Harvard University’s Usable Knowledge, the study provides “some of the first causal evidence that strict schools do indeed contribute to the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.”

The study focused primarily on North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, where approximately 23 percent of middle school students, the majority of whom are male students of color, are suspended annually. Researchers examined school administrative records, data on arrests and incarcerations, and college attendance records to assess how the district’s suspension policy and other factors affected later life outcomes. Andrew Bacher-Hicks, the study’s lead author, told Usable Knowledge that the study found “large negative impacts on later-life outcomes” for all students—not just those who were suspended—related to attending a school with a high suspension rate. As Emily Boudreau reported, the study’s authors recommended that school administrators and teachers “should be cautious of relying heavily on exclusionary practices” and that they should consider alternatives to suspensions, including positive reinforcement, and restorative processes for students returning to the classroom following any disciplinary action.

A RAND Corporation study emphasized the importance of higher education for prison inmates, as Leighanna Shirey reported for Citizen Truth in June 2019. Education serves as a form of rehabilitation, and access to higher education allows incarcerated individuals to develop new skills, leading to reduced recidivism, the RAND study documented.

As Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher at RAND and leader of the study, told Citizen Truth, the study “dispelled the myths about whether or not education helps inmates when they get out. Education is, by far, such a clear winner.” She also noted that all of society benefits when incarcerated people can receive an education: “[W]hat do you want for your community?” she asked. “If you don’t rehabilitate [prison inmates], how are they going to successfully rejoin society?”

The RAND study corroborated previous research on the value of post-secondary education programs for incarcerated people. For example, the Vera Institute of Justice has found that “education is key to improving many long-term outcomes for incarcerated people, their families, and their communities—including reducing recidivism and increasing employability and earnings after release.”

The school-to-prison pipeline has made national headlines in recent years, but establishment media have failed to cover the National Bureau of Economic Research study as important evidence that strict schools contribute to this pattern. In September 2019 the Los Angeles Times reported that schools in California have expanded their ban on “willful defiance suspensions” so that elementary and middle school students cannot be suspended for defying authority, citing the counterproductivity of such suspensions and how they are unfairly applied to Black students. An October 2019 article in Forbes discussed the school-to-prison pipeline and how students of color face harsher punishments than their white peers, noting, “The more time that Black and Brown children spend outside of the classroom, the more likely they are to be introduced to the criminal justice system.” However, neither article addressed the causal evidence documented in the study covered by ColorLines and Usable Knowledge.

Major news outlets, including the New York Times and NPR, fail to report on the positive societal effects of higher education in prisons. Instead, their orientation toward education in prisons is primarily concerned with the economics of educational programs and is centered on congressional politics. For example, in February 2018 the New York Times reported that Senate leaders might reinstate Pell grants for incarcerated students, “a move that would restore a federal lifeline to the nation’s cash-strapped prison education system.” More recently, in April 2019 NPR reported on how Congress was again considering legislation to make Pell grants available to incarcerated people. While most US prisoners are still barred from receiving Pell grants, they have been made available to a limited number of incarcerated students through the “Second Chance Pell Pilot Program”; an April 2020 Washington Post report on an expansion of the program, which Education Secretary Betsy DeVos refers to as an “experiment,” did make a passing mention of the results of the RAND study.

Shani Saxon, “Study Links High-Suspension Schools with Incarceration Later in Life,” ColorLines, September 23, 2019, https://www.colorlines.com/articles/study-links-high-suspension-schools-incarceration-later-life.

Emily Boudreau, “School Discipline Linked to Later Consequences,” Usable Knowledge (Harvard Graduate School of Education), September 16, 2019, https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/19/09/school-discipline-linked-later-consequences.

Leighanna Shirey, “New Study Proves Vast Benefits of Higher Education for Inmates,” Citizen Truth, June 13, 2019, https://citizentruth.org/new-study-proves-vast-benefits-of-higher-education-for-inmates/.

Student Researchers: Jacqueline Archie, Marco Corea, Gabriella Grondalski, Rowan Hamilton, Rebecca Herbert, Kiara Killelea, Ciara Lockwood, Molly McKeogh, Liam O’Sullivan, Alexandra Shore, Eleanor Sprick, Madeline Terrio, Alexander Tran, and Kirstyn Velazquez (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Advisor: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)