‘Criminal Justice Policy Is Education Policy’


The Economic Policy Institute recently issued a report that draws a straight line between parental incarceration and an array of outcomes in children–none of them good–that affects their academic performance.

It is a devastating document.

“The work of educators is so affected by mass incarceration,” co-author Richard Rothstein told me, “that criminal justice reform would do more to raise the achievement of children than any education reform.”


Connecting Criminal (In)justice and Education


Rothstein is an EPI researcher and senior fellow of the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. He wrote Mass Incarceration and Children’s Outcomes with Leila Morsy, a senior lecturer in education at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

The authors’ goal? “To persuade school boards and educators to press for criminal justice reforms,” Rothstein says. If you wanted to inflict long-term, multigenerational harm on a community, mass incarceration would be the tool to use.

Rothstein told me that stress is the main culprit. Children who have parents in prison experience damaging stress, which leads to impaired cognitive and noncognitive outcomes.

A key highlight from the report states the following:

Independent of other social and economic characteristics, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to:

  • Drop out of school.
  • Develop learning disabilities, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Misbehave in school.
  • Suffer from speech problems, migraines, asthma, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and homelessness.

These problems depress student learning and hinder the development of pro-social behaviors, ironically making it almost impossible for these children to acquire an education–the one nearly guaranteed avenue of escape from poverty and dysfunction.

Sadly, this is not an insignificant problem. According to the report, “Approximately 10% of African American schoolchildren have a parent who is in jail or prison.”  That’s nearly 800,000 children, just counting black students who attend public school.


Criminal Justice Reform


The authors call on educators, who want to improve the achievement of their most vulnerable students, to join with criminal justice reformers to press for specific reforms to:

  • Eliminate disparities between minimum sentences for possession of crack versus powder cocaine.
  • Repeal mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes.
  • Increase funding for social, educational, and employment programs for released offenders.


Read the entire report here.