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Analysis II
Last Updated: 12/04/2007
The School-to-Prison Pipeline in Massachusetts
Nicole Pion

In 2003, minority youth in Massachusetts made up 24% of the juvenile population yet constituted a disproportionate 58% of all detention placements and 62% of the youths committed within the Department of Youth Services (DYS).[1]   This striking inequality is referred to as disproportionate minority contact (DMC) and indicates the exceedingly high instances of minority youth in the juvenile justice system.[2]  At the root of this conflict lies the “school-to-prison pipeline,”[3] where sub-standard educational services in low-income communities leave minority youth highly susceptible to DYS detention.  DMC is a real threat to community stability because over 50% of DYS discharges were arraigned within one year of release,[4] indicating that this system is not functioning as intended, “to provide for the safety and security of our youth and our communities.”[5]  However, equitable solutions can be found, particularly through improvement of the education system. 

Massachusetts data demonstrates that minority youth are statistically most likely to drop out of school, to be expelled, or otherwise be excluded from educational opportunities.[6]  The link between poverty and the education system is of particular importance in explaining the asymmetric relationship between minority youth and the juvenile justice system.  The 2004 Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Data and Information states: “Black and Hispanic children in Massachusetts are more likely to be low income than black and Hispanic children nationally, while white children in Massachusetts are less likely to be low income than White children nationally.”[7]  Families in low-income communities often have no choice but to enroll children in school systems that have been likened to a “school-to-prison-pipeline.” This term implies overrepresentation of minority youths from specific schools in the DYS system.[8]  “Lack of certified teachers and guidance councilors, advanced instruction, early intervention programs, and safe, well-equipped facilities” is the norm.[9] 

This reality points to another need that is not being met: distributive justice.  Because city property taxes fund Massachusetts school systems, students in low-income neighborhoods automatically have less funding for their public schools.  As the Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline report indicates: “lack of sufficient resources in our schools also creates perverse incentives for school officials to remove children from school…extensive testing regimes, and harsh sanctions imposed on schools and teachers—actually encourage schools to funnel out those students whom they believe are likely to drag down a school’s test scores.”[10]  Yet these are the most vulnerable students who would benefit greatly from increased funding, resources, and attention.  Studies have shown that being held back, expelled, or otherwise excluded from school directly correlates to high levels of arrest in adolescent females.[11]  Simply stated, limited resources and facilities cannot inhibit negative student behavior and poor achievement.  Thus, school exclusion, further sub-standard performance and dramatically increases the likelihood that students will enter DYS custody.  

Since there is a direct and causal relationship between sub-standard education and DYS detention, the most effective solution would be to prevent children from entering DYS services by investing in education.  A report from the Justice Policy Institute indicates “detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being…for one third of incarcerated youth…the onset of depression occurred after they began their incarceration.”[12]  Moreover, the practice of detention, meant to prevent further juvenile crime, actually contributes to the likelihood that they will become repeat offenders.  According to statistics from 2000, 55% of DYS discharges were arraigned, 28% were convicted of crimes, and 22% were re-incarcerated within a year of release.[13]  Given these negative outcomes, it is not surprising that detention further compromises access to education.  School attendance is impossible, and it is extremely difficult to make up for this lost time, resulting in negative, long-term educational outcomes for youth who were likely behind and/or struggling with learning disorders to begin with.[14]  Upon release from jail or detention, youth carry the stigma of a criminal, they may also face discrimination in finding a job, returning to school, or getting a drivers license.[15]

These punitive practices place communities in greater danger, not less: “(i)f juveniles commit fewer crimes because they have received more and better services, fewer community members will be victimized.  Less crime will mean fewer victims, fewer missed days of work, lower medical bills, and…less fear and suffering.”[16]  Yet, the communities into which these youths are released are among the poorest and the most crime-ridden in the state. [17]  Low-income communities do not have the spare resources to contribute to the growing problem of detention, particularly when there are few positive returns.  The Washington State Institute for Public Policy found, that on a national average, every dollar spent on detention systems returned $1.98 worth of positive outcomes in crime reduction and related results.  However, for alternative programs designed to mitigate juvenile criminal activities, every dollar returned $3.36 in benefits.[18]   

Investments in education systems, however, have returns and impacts that far exceed those of rehabilitation programs.  For example, at Sabis charter school in Springfield, one of the poorest and most ‘at-risk’ communities in the state, “(a)ll Sabis seniors in the class of 2007 were admitted to higher learning institutions as were 100 percent of the class of 2006, according to the school's annual report. Of 93 Sabis 10th graders who took the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests last year, only 1 percent fell into the warning/failing category in English and just 2 percent in math.”[19]  Because of the extra investment in education, expenses related to DYS and rehabilitation have been circumvented by addressing the problem at it’s root.  While better education systems are not a panacea for keeping youth out of DYS, the overall benefits are too great to be overlooked.  In Limits to Growth, Dennis Meadows defines a sustainable society  “one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[20]  A society in which the poorest and most vulnerable children are the most commonly uneducated and incarcerated is not a sustainable, desirable, or peaceful existence.

The introduction to the 2004 Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Data and Information report states: “(t)he Massachusetts juvenile justice system, in fact, is not really one “system” at all.  Similar to other states, our system is really an interdependent set of systems that work together to provide for the safety and security of our youth and our communities.”[21]  In order for this mission statement to be realized, there are some logical and effective practices that could be implemented to change the inherently conflict nature of this system.  Addressing the needs of children by providing healthy school systems would decrease the number of youths in the juvenile detention system and any money going into this effort would offer a greater return/community benefit than money spent on incarceration and rehabilitation.  However, the importance of proper rehabilitation cannot be overlooked.  For youths within the juvenile detention system, comprehensive rehabilitation would also result in a positive return and a decrease in crime and violence.  The number of juvenile detentions is growing in Massachusetts[22] and the related problems will only continue to pose threats.  However, there are some simple solutions that offer real and tangible results that will have a positive impact for years to come.  As Kofi Annan stated, “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family."[23]  If the state of Massachusetts is to make progress on these fronts, wide availability of quality education cannot be neglected. 

[1] 2004 Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Data and Information Report.  Commonwealth of Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety Programs Division.  December, 2004.   p.10.  Available at:

[2] 2004 Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Data and Information Report. p. 10.

[3] 2006.  Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.  New York, NY.

[4] Brooks, Lisa; Keegan, Sinead; Kohl, Rhiana; Lahue, Lori; Solomon, Amy.  2005.  Prisoner Reentry in Massachusetts, Urban Institute Justice Policy Center.  Washington, DC.  p.36.

[5] 2004 Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Data and Information Report. p.28.

[6] 2004 Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Data and Information Report. p.22-23.

[7] 2004 Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Data and Information Report. p.53.

[8] Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline. p.2.

[9] Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline. p.4.

[10] Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline. p.5.

[11] Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline. P.4.

[12] Holman, Barry and Ziedenberg, Jason.  2006.  The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities, A Justice Policy Institute Report.  Justice Policy Institute.  Washington DC. P.1.

[13] Brooks, Lisa; Keegan, Sinead; Kohl, Rhiana; Lahue, Lori; Solomon, Amy.  p.36.

[14] 2006.  Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report.  Center for Juvenile Justice p.2

[15] 2007.  The Consequences Aren’t Minor:The Impact of Trying Youth as Adults and Strategies for Reform, A Campaign for Youth Justice Report.  Washington, DC. P.13.

[16] 2007.  The Consequences Aren’t Minor: The Impact of Trying Youth as Adults and Strategies for Reform, A Campaign for Youth Justice Report.  Washington, DC. P.17.

[17] Prisoner Reentry in MA. P.54

[18] Holman, Barry and Ziedenberg, Jason.  p.10.

[19] Friday, July 06, 2007.  “City schools can learn a lesson from Sabis.”  Available at:

[20] Meadows, Dennis.  2004.  Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update.  Chelsea Green Publishing. p.254.

[21] 2004 Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Data and Information Report. p.28.

[22] 2004 Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Data and Information Report. p.10.