• Amber Cleaver

Black Incarceration & The School-to-Prison Pipeline


As a criminal law practitioner the percentage of cases that actually go to trial may be in the low single digit percentages, however the percentage of clients that happen to be black, will likely be in the much higher double digits. It is no secret that blacks account for a much higher percentage of Americans within the criminal justice system. A part of these staggering statistics can be attributed to the school-to-prison pipeline and its impact on black youth, specifically males. The discipline disparities between black and white students are alarming, and once these students become a part of the criminal justice system the likelihood of breaking out of the system is unlikely. A 2014 study from Bureau of Justice Statistics explored the statistics of repeated violations of offenders after their jail terms. The study followed prison releases for 3 and 5 years and it revealed the following: 67.8% of the 404,638 state prisoners released in 2005 in 30 states were arrested within 3 years of release and 76.6% were arrested within 5 years of release; prisoners released in 2005 in 23 states had 49.7% violate parole or probation within 3 years that led to imprisonment and 55.1% had a parole or probation violation that led to imprisonment within 5 years.

Responding to society’s perception of and concern for youth violence, the Clinton Administration passed and signed The Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 into law, which required schools to adopt a zero tolerance policy for weapons on school grounds. However, what became a consequence of this policy, was schools’ process to criminalize minor disciplinary infractions using zero tolerance policies, increased police presence at the school, reliance on suspensions and expulsions for minor infractions, and providing officers with more power to discipline students. The zero tolerance policy appears to be impacting the Black students the most, as it escalates disciplinary actions based on misconduct. A recent government study on school discipline in U.S. public schools dives into the discipline disparities and exposes how early the gap begins in early childhood education. Based on the report, black children make up 18% of preschoolers, but make up 48% of preschool children receiving more than one out of school suspensions. As a direct comparison, white students make up 43% of preschool enrollment but only 26% of preschool children receiving more than one out of school suspension. Black students, who are suspended at a rate of 16%, are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, who are at a 5% suspension rate.

Black boys are nationally overrepresented in indexes of school discipline ranging from classroom penalties, such as verbal reprimands, to institutional punishments such as suspensions and expulsions. Cultural constructs may impact the racial disparities in school discipline. Justin Levinson conducted a 2007 study that perpetuated this theory with mock jurors who were told a fictitious story involving a fistfight. In one condition, the protagonist of the story was white, “William;” in other conditions, “William” was replaced by “Tyronne” (who was explicitly described as black) or “Kawika,” a Hawaiian. After a duration of fifteen minutes, the participants were asked to recall the details of the fictitious story. Levinson found there was a direct connection of the defendant’s race to the participants’ recollection of the account. He found that participants had an easier time successfully recalling the facts regarding the aggressiveness of “Tyronne” compared to when “William” or “Kawika” were placed as the defendant. Additionally, B. Keith Payne has also researched the implicit associations of black faces opposed to white faces. That research found participants were more quickly able to identify images of guns than with hand tools when the face was black.

Researchers at the Kirwan Institute believe implicit racial bias is a powerful explanation for the persistence of many societal inequities, even among individuals with egalitarian intentions. Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes affecting our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases are activated involuntarily and without individuals’ awareness or intentional control. The implicit biases we hold—both positive and negative associations—are activated based on characteristics such as race/ethnicity, gender, age, and religion, among others. An example of this could be a school administrator who believes he or she is meting out equal punishments for equivalent infractions, when in fact certain student populations are receiving harsher discipline due to the subtle yet powerful influence of the administrators’ implicit biases. Implicit biases can be manifested in a variety of ways that yield significant impacts, specifically in the academic realm permeating educational settings, often yielding negative consequences for students of color.

These numbers can be impacted in a positive manner to stop schools from placing black students into the school-to-prison pipeline. Researchers suggest that improving the cultural diversity of schools, including cultural competency trainings, while help minimize the disproportionate percentages of school disciplinary actions against black students. There is an overall lack of cultural synchronization between students and their teachers. The current teaching workforce is predominately white women, thus there is an inherent cultural mismatch between the teachers and the diverse student body. A national survey found that among the teaching population, both 84% were white and 84% were women. Students of color are also found to comprise the majority of public primary school students nationwide, looking at the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., over 55% are of color. This cultural mismatch between teachers and students can activate teachers’ implicit racial biases in ways that contribute to discipline disparities. Culture-based misunderstandings between students and teachers can lead to students being disciplined unnecessarily for perceived unruliness even when their actions were not intended to be inappropriate. There are contrasts between “mainstream sociocultural norms” and “culturally influenced” student behavior that can be interpreted as misconduct or bad behavior, especially among black students. For example a colorful debate may be interpreted as aggressive and contentious rather than simply verbal sparring common among black teenagers. Differences in discourse models can also signal cultural mismatch. Overlapping speech, such as the active “call-response” participatory pattern familiar to black students, may be perceived as disruptive and/or rude when contrasted with the more “passive-receptive” approach that is likely to be more typical to white teachers’ expectations. In other cases, play fighting may be mistakenly regarded as genuine aggression. For black females in particular, what may be perceived as loud and defiant behavior may actually be the manifestation of important survival qualities that have historically reflected resilience in the face of racism, sexism, and classism.

There are many contributing factors to the high percentage of black involvement in the criminal justice system. It’s not just, higher statistics of involvement, discrimination from the police force, or prosecutorial discretion, but it links back to the nation’s school systems. By continuously monitoring these drastic percentages and digging for the problems the attack on the school-to-prison pipeline for Black children can be sidelined. Mitigating implicit racial bias by improving is only the first step that can make historic improvements on our criminal justice system for generations to come.


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