Thinking About the School-to-Prison Pipeline

August 2016

The school-to-prison pipeline has been described in various ways. Most descriptions of this concept involve some combination of disadvantaged students, an overly punitive school environment, exclusionary discipline practices, and the justice system.1 A review of the school-to-prison pipeline literature has identified four common themes in this discussion, including:

  1. the increasing use of exclusionary discipline (e.g., suspension and expulsion);
  2. a relationship between exclusionary discipline and future negative outcomes;
  3. disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline on certain student populations, and;
  4. the claim that it is school practices themselves, and not individual characteristics of students, that account for negative outcomes experienced by youth.14

Some have suggested that the school-to-prison pipeline is a useful metaphor, or heuristic, for describing a real pathway that some youth follow beginning with school discipline and ending with a prison sentence.6,14 The next question, then, is what evidence has been found to support existence of this trajectory? Empirical research helps to provide a more complete perspective on this issue and can be used to make more informed judgements regarding policy and practice. Research results can give school practitioners and policymakers an evidence-based understanding that can assist in building stronger schools and communities. Creating this knowledge base requires clearly articulated predictions about the relationships in question. These predictions can then be tested through empirical research.

This article explores the school-to-prison pipeline concept and the factors that are believed to contribute to its existence. Research on this topic is summarized to provide an understanding of the evidence available. Given the current evidence, suggestions are offered for using research to inform policy and practice, while considering the unique context of individual students and school environments.

What Does the School-to-Prison Pipeline Predict?

The school-to-prison pipeline concept predicts that the use of exclusionary practices in school increases the likelihood that disciplined youth will serve a prison sentence in the future. Exclusionary practices include out-of-school suspension, expulsion, arrest at school, and transfer to alternative or disciplinary school. A number of negative outcomes are predicted once a youth is excluded from school, ranging from truancy and school dropout, to delinquency and arrest. These negative outcomes compound and eventually result in an individual serving prison time. It is also anticipated that some individual factors such as race of the student, and some school factors such as zero-tolerance policies, contribute to the increased likelihood of youth being excluded from school and going to prison later in life.

The school-to-prison pipeline concept predicts that the use of exclusionary practices in school increases the likelihood that disciplined youth will serve a prison sentence in the future

Put simply, the school-to-prison pipeline implies that students who are excluded from school are placed on a pathway, or in a pipeline, that includes a series of negative outcomes and increased likelihood of going to prison. This prediction, and related predictions, have been the focus of empirical research described next.

School to Prison Pipeline Diagram

Does Research Support Claims of a School-to-Prison Pipeline?

School exclusion is a central element in the school-to-prison pipeline, and has been a focus in numerous studies. Evidence increasingly points to a strong relationship between exclusionary discipline and academic failure,11 arrest,10 juvenile justice system involvement,3,9 criminal justice system involvement,12 and incarceration.13,17 Mowen and Brent10 describe school suspension as the "turning point" in a youth's life that is associated with arrest. They found that being suspended across multiple years increases a youth's odds of arrest following suspension. Cuellar and Markowitz2 also found that suspension increases probability of arrest, but added that this effect is even greater for black youth than for white youth. In almost all cases, research shows that being excluded from school contributes to the negative outcomes under study.

In almost all cases, research shows that being excluded from school contributes to negative outcomes

Beyond school exclusion, the school-to-prison pipeline makes predictions about individual and school characteristics that may also influence outcomes for youth. For instance, school-based policing is sometimes criticized for creating a more punitive school environment that contributes to a school-to-prison pipeline. Research on this topic is somewhat unclear, however. One meta-analytic study revealed mixed findings regarding relationship between school-based policing and exclusionary discipline,4 suggesting that this relationship is likely impacted by other intervening factors. Another study found that school resource officers were less likely than officers on the street to refer youth to the juvenile justice system.8 A study by Wolf and Kupchik17 identified no significant relationship between school-based policing and incarceration, even in situations where individual and school characteristics were similar. These findings suggest that the relationship between school-based policing and negative youth outcomes is more complex than currently understood.

These findings suggest that the relationship between school-based policing and negative youth outcomes is more complex than currently understood

Other relevant relationships have also been studied under the school-to-prison pipeline perspective. For example, most studies find that minorities, especially black students, are at higher risk of being suspended or expelled3,9,13 and experiencing subsequent negative outcomes.2,3,13 One report also found that harsher discipline is experienced by students with disabilities and LGBT youth than by white and heterosexual youth.9

A more complex conception of the school-to-prison pipeline prediction is that suspension causes school dropout, and dropout causes delinquency, arrest, and prison. In fact, suspension appears to increase dropout rates.3,7 Higher dropout rates have shown to be associated with juvenile justice system involvement,3 but studies examining the association between dropout and future delinquency are conflicting. One earlier study found that dropping out of school increases later delinquency.16 A later study found that differences in delinquency existed between students who dropped out of school and those that did not, but the effect of dropping out of school did not appear to cause youth to change predicted patterns of delinquency.15 This suggests that a more complex explanation is needed to understand how suspension is linked to future delinquency, not explained by school dropout.

A more complex explanation is needed to understand how suspension is linked to future delinquency, not explained by school dropout

Research on the school-to-prison pipeline is fairly consistent in support of its core predicted relationships (not including school-based policing predictions). Exclusionary discipline is indeed associated with a variety of negative outcomes for youth, including prison. However, at least two important issues are not addressed by this body of research. First, it is unclear why being excluded from school increases likelihood of future delinquency, arrest, and incarceration. Skiba and colleagues14 point out that school suspension or expulsion, in and of itself, does not intuitively explain why youth end up in prison. It is possible that it is the impact of school exclusion on intermediate circumstances (between exclusion and prison), such as the inability to get a job or lack of supervision outside of school, that explain the observed relationship. This concern is largely untested by research, making it difficult to identify a tangible explanation that could suggest a policy or practice implication.

Secondly, it is important to understand that identifying a relationship between school exclusion and arrest or prison is not sufficient to claim that suspension and expulsion of students is solely responsible for a youth's future behavior. For example, the studies that find a link between school suspension and prison incarceration do not account for the possibility that excluded students may already have been on a track to prison, and school discipline was just one extraneous step along the way. Addressing these issues with research is an important next step in guiding policy and practice.

Using Research for Policy and Practice

The purpose of this article was to inform practitioners and policymakers of the current research on the topic of the school-to-prison pipeline. Keeping current with research findings can enhance one's perspective so that a wider range of knowledge can be used when making decisions. In this case, the school-to-prison pipeline research calls into question the impacts of suspending and expelling students, but the field lacks sufficient empirical evidence to suggest that school exclusion is directly responsible for these negative outcomes.

The field lacks sufficient empirical evidence to suggest that school exclusion is directly responsible for these negative outcomes

One explanation for this relationship between exclusionary practices and prison may be that excluded students are forced out of school, become unable to earn a legitimate living, and therefore turn to a life of crime. In this case, exclusionary discipline appears to alter the course of a youth's life in a direction that may not have otherwise been taken. Another explanation may be that excluded students were already on a track to prison, and removing them from school did little to change the inevitable. Yet another alternative is that excluded youth are pushed out of school and a lack of supervision fails to control their typical tendencies towards deviant behavior. It is equally plausible that the true answer is case-specific to the uniqueness of each individual student, including family and neighborhood contextual characteristics.5 The strengths of these possible explanations are still unknown.

Ultimately, it is important to consider the possible long-term consequences for both individual students and the entire school community, beyond the current situation. Discipline and policy decisions can affect multiple stakeholders, and balancing these impacts is therefore a challenge in school environments. It is beneficial to follow the development of objective research on relevant topics, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, and use knowledge as a guide toward optimum outcomes for all.


1See Skiba, Arrendondo, & Williams (2014) for a list of definitions from various sources.

2Cuellar, A.E., & Markowitz, S. (2015). School suspension and the school-to-prison pipeline. International Review of Law and Economics, 43, 98-106.

3Fabelo, T., Thompson, M.D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks III, M.P., & Booth, E.A. (2011). Breaking schools' rules: A statewide study of how school discipline relates to students' success and juvenile justice involvement. New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center.

4Fisher, B.W., & Hennessy, E.A. (2015). School resource officers and exclusionary discipline in us high schools: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Adolescent Research Review, 1-17.

5Kirk, D. S. (2009). Unraveling the contextual effects on student suspension and juvenile arrest: The independent and interdependent influences of school, neighborhood, and family social controls. Criminology, 47(2), 479-520.

6Kupchik, A. (2014). The school-to-prison pipeline: Rhetoric and reality. In F.E. Zimring & Tanenhaus, D.S. Choosing the Future for American Juvenile Justice. New York, NY: New York University Press.

7Lee, T., Cornell, D., Gregory, A., & Fan, X. (2011). High suspension schools and dropout rates for black and white students. Education and Treatment of Children, 34(2), 167-192.

8May, D. C., Barranco, R., Stokes, E., Robertson, A. A., & Haynes, S. H. (2015). Do school resource officers really refer juveniles to the juvenile justice system for less serious offenses?. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 0887403415610167.

9Morgan, E., Salomon, N., Plotkin, M., & Cohen, R. (2014). The school discipline consensus report: Strategies from the field to keep students engaged in school and out of the juvenile justice system. The Council of State Governments Justice Center: June, 4, 112.

10Mowen, T., & Brent, J. (2016). School discipline as a turning point: The cumulative effect of suspension on arrest. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 0022427816643135.

11Perry, B.L., & Morris, E.W. (2014). Suspending progress: Collateral consequences of exclusionary punishment in public schools. American Sociological Review, 0003122414556308.

12Ramey, D.M. (2016). The influence of early school punishment and therapy/medication on social control experiences during young adulthood. Criminology, 54(1), 113-141.

13Shollenberger, T. L. (2014). Racial disparities in school suspension and subsequent outcomes. In D.J. Losen (ed.), Closing the school discipline gap: Equitable remedies for excessive exclusion, Teachers College Press.

14Skiba, R.J., Arrendondo, M.I., & Williams, N.T. (2014). More than a metaphor: The contribution of exclusionary discipline to a school-to-prison pipeline. Equity and Excellence in Education, 47(4).

15Sweeten, G., Bushway, S. D., & Paternoster, R. (2009). Does dropping out of school mean dropping into delinquency?. Criminology, 47(1), 47-91.

16Thornberry, T. P., Moore, M., & Christenson, R. L. (1985). The effect of dropping out of high school on subsequent criminal behavior. Criminology, 23(1), 3-18.

17Wolf, K. C., & Kupchik, A. (2016). School suspensions and adverse experiences in adulthood. Justice Quarterly, 1-24.