Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline

Over the last 30 years, advocates in the fields of child welfare, education, juvenile justice and mental health have studied, documented and validated the connection between our public education system and our criminal justice system.

The connection that researchers and experts in the field identified was given a name by the Children’s Defense Fund, who in 2007 published a report titled “The Cradle to Prison Pipeline”. In its report, CDF estimated that for boys born in 2001, black boys have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison during their lifetime, while White boys have a 1 in 17 chance.  While the pipeline has many factors that contributed to its creation, the report suggested that poverty, a struggling education system, and an unresponsive, punitive juvenile justice system were major factors in the pipeline’s creation.

While the public education and juvenile justice systems are both creations of the individual states, the federal government has a role to play in both. House Democrats remain committed to pursuing policies that will lead to a dismantling of the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.  If we are going to be successful, it will require meaningful changes to both our education and juvenile justice systems.


National juvenile justice policy is set in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, or JJDPA. JJDPA creates the federal guardrails that protect our children in the juvenile justice systems in each state. In the 14 years since the last reauthorized the program, there has been a wealth of research created that needs to be integrated into our federal juvenile justice policies.

  • Some states have experienced positive results from investing in alternatives to incarceration and secure detention.
  • The power of evidence-based policies in both reducing crime and saving money have been well documented throughout the country.
  • There has been an acknowledgment of the role that trauma plays in the lives of our disengaged youth, and what it takes to get them back on the right track.    

Committee Democrats remain focused on passing the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2017, a bipartisan and full reauthorization of JJDPA, that includes a strong recognition of the importance of prevention and intervention. Local community advocates, groups, and individuals are pivotal in the effort to reauthorize JJDPA. The more that policymakers can hear about the importance of juvenile justice from their constituents, the better the likelihood of getting this legislation signed into law.


There is a proven school discipline gap, a disparity in our system regarding how different groups of children are disciplined.  Recently, the UCLA Civil Rights Project – in coordination with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the National Disability Rights Network – released a report on the school discipline gap that contained some shocking facts. In analyzing data from the 2011-12 school year, they found:

  • U.S. public school children in total lost nearly 18 million days of instruction because of exclusionary discipline.
  • Black youth were suspended at three times the rate of all students in elementary school, and twice the rate of all students in secondary school.
  • Many large school districts are suspending more than one out of every 5 elementary students at least once.
  • High school students with disabilities are suspended at alarming rates. In Florida, 37 percent of all secondary students with disabilities were suspended.
  • In Wisconsin, more than 1 in 3 black secondary school students was suspended, while only 4 in 100 white secondary school students were.

When we are not educating or disciplining children equitably, that inequity has a direct effect on the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. To better address this, the recently-enacted Every Student Succeeds Act requires states and localities to focus on the overuse of exclusionary and dangerous discipline practices.

State plans must describe how they will support LEAs to improve school conditions for student learning, including, “reducing…incidences of bullying and harassment; the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom; and the use of aversive behavioral interventions that compromise student health and safety” ESSA, Section 1111(g)(1)(C)(i-iii).

Local plans must describe how they will “support efforts to reduce the overuse of discipline practices that remove students form the classroom, which may include identifying and supporting schools with high rates of discipline, disaggregated by each of the subgroups of students, as defined in section 1111(c)(2). ESSA, Section 1112(b)(11). 

ESSA provides funding for states and localities to implement effective discipline practices, and engage parents and families in school success. Localities can use Title II funds to “develop programs and activities that increase the ability of teachers to effectively teach children with disabilities, including children with significant cognitive disabilities, and English learners, which may include the use of multi-tier systems of support and positive behavioral intervention and supports”. ESSA, Section 2103(b)(3)(F).

Under Section 4108, LEAs can use federal funding to develop many programs and activities aimed at reducing the school discipline gap, including:

  • Schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports;
  • Trauma-informed and evidence-based school –based mental health services;
  • Bullying and harassment prevention programs;
  • School dropout and re-entry programs;
  • Training for school personnel in trauma-informed practices in classroom management, school-based violence prevention strategies, and bullying and harassment prevention; and
  • Designing and implementing a locally-tailored evidence-based plans to reduce exclusionary discipline practices in elementary and secondary schools.

Key Documents:

Fact Sheet: Juvenile Justice and Reform Act of 2017

Juvenile Justice: By the Numbers

Fact Sheet: Black Girls in the School-To-Prison Pipeline

Key Legislation:

Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2017