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We All Pay for Not Addressing the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Dr Marcus Bright Headshot 213591 637e62cb81db6

Terms like “school-to-prison pipeline” and “The New Jim Crow” may sound distant to some, leading them to think that it has little relevance to their lives or communities. However, the reality is far from that perception. The impact of these systemic issues extend beyond the individuals directly affected, seeping into the fabric of the broader society and affecting us all.

Dr. Marcus BrightDr. Marcus BrightIt is like being at a dinner at a restaurant with a group of people and you order chicken, one side, and water that amounts to $40 while others order steak, lobster, multiple appetizers, three rounds of drinks, and a dessert that amounts to nearly $300 per person. Then when everyone is done eating and the bill comes, they say “let’s just all split the bill.” You then end up paying five times the amount that your meal costed. You may not have ordered the extra food and beverages, but you are still paying for it.

Similarly, in the context of the school-to-prison pipeline, when a person falls through the cracks of the education system and does not have an avenue to gainful legal pathways to economic subsistence, we all pay for it. The cycle perpetuates as more individuals are funneled into a system that limits their upward mobility, ultimately making the community less safe and prosperous for all.

When parents are not in an economic position to supervise children and provide the developmental support that they need to flourish then we all suffer. When we are spending tremendous amounts of money on incarceration instead of on universal early learning coverage, more mental health professionals for schools, and high-quality tech programming to prepare people for the economy of the future, we all pay for that.

A report, titled "The Cost of Doing Business: Why Criminal Justice Reform Is the Right Investment to Strengthen Mississippi’s Economy and Workforce", provided good examples of the economic costs of mass incarceration and its broader impact as it pertains to how it undermines economic progress by taking people out of the workforce, draining taxpayer resources to the tune of $400 million per year, and producing more people with criminal convictions who have higher rates of unemployment and underemployment after their incarceration.

The report posited that “an overly punitive criminal justice system wastes resources and fails to address people’s real safety and security needs. The collateral costs of spending on Mississippi’s criminal justice system drain critical resources better spent attracting new industries and cultivating economic development.” This narrative should impel us to have a paradigm shift and motivate us to advocate for the redirection of resources towards prevention and not detention.

There are myriad, different ways that colleges and universities can help to bring about solutions to the school-to-prison pipeline. Among them are engaging in collaborative efforts with other entities that focus on enhancing literacy, providing training for high-wage industries, and creating pathways of opportunity for individuals without high school diplomas or GEDs.

By recognizing the critical interplay between education and incarceration rates, higher education institutions have a unique opportunity to drive change and foster a more equitable society.

The stark correlation between literacy levels and incarceration rates underscores the pressing need for interventions in this realm. Data reveals that a significant portion of incarcerated individuals struggle with low literacy levels, highlighting the detrimental impact of inadequate reading skills on the likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system. Conversely, early literacy proficiency has been linked to increased high school graduation rates and reduced propensity for incarceration, emphasizing the transformative power of strong foundational skills in breaking the cycle of poverty and imprisonment.

Additionally, colleges and universities can play a pivotal role in implementing policies and initiatives that steer students towards successful academic and vocational pathways. By promoting a dual-focus approach that encourages high school completion alongside industry-recognized credential attainment, institutions can help to equip learners with the necessary tools to thrive in today's competitive job market. Introducing students to diverse career opportunities and credentialing options early in their educational journey empowers them to make informed decisions and chart meaningful career trajectories. 

Moreover, fostering collaboration between higher education entities, middle and high schools, and industry stakeholders can facilitate the alignment of curricula with workforce demands, ensuring that students acquire practical skills that are highly valued by employers. This proactive approach not only cultivates a skilled and adaptable workforce but also nurtures a culture of lifelong learning and professional advancement.

Considering the significant impact of a lack of educational attainment on incarceration rates, it becomes imperative to expand opportunities for individuals without high school diplomas or GEDs. This group faces heightened risks of imprisonment without academic credentials; targeted interventions aimed at reengaging and supporting these individuals are paramount. By offering alternative pathways to education, skills training, and meaningful employment, colleges and universities can contribute significantly to reducing recidivism rates and promoting social inclusion and economic mobility for marginalized communities.

The school-to-prison pipeline and broader mass incarceration system that extends into adulthood presents a formidable generational challenge that requires massive action to bring about transformative changes. When we choose to stay on the sidelines of the policymaking process and relinquish our voice in shaping the direction of our society, it is much like forfeiting our choice in selecting the restaurant or the meal in the group dinner scenario. This passive stance results in shouldering the consequences of policies and decisions made by others, irrespective of their benefits to us or alignment with our beliefs.

Ultimately, the hidden costs of not taking transformative action to dismantle the pervasive school-to-prison pipeline underscores the interconnectedness of our fates. Every individual, regardless of their personal circumstances, bears the weight of societal injustices when left unaddressed. It is only through active engagement and advocacy for change that we can strive towards a more equitable and just society where everyone can thrive and contribute meaningfully. If we don’t act now, we will all continue to pay the price.

Dr. Marcus Bright is an author and social impact professional.

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