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Can Better Classrooms Lead to Empty Cells? An analysis of school funding and incarceration rates

Thatcher Broyles was a 2019-2020 Young Scholar Awards Program recipient. He is a graduate of Belmont University where he majored in economics with a double minor in mathematics and finance.

Incarceration rates within the United States have been the subject of heated debate for multiple decades. In spite of its status as a highly developed country, the United States has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world with 737 prisoners per 100,000 members of the population. Despite policy makers and activists taking important strides towards the rehabilitation of prisoners, there is much to still understand when it comes to the complex task of implementing successful crime reduction policies.

Most conversations on prison policy involving the media and general public center on two main questions: “What methods genuinely work to reduce crime?” and “Are those methods being abused?” These methods typically fall into four broad categories: containment, revenge, deterrence, and rehabilitation. However, there are other methods available. Greater access to education, higher earning potential, and a superior economic infrastructure have all been shown to reduce crime rates. In my paper “Can Better Classrooms Lead to Empty Cells?” I researched the factor of education.

The public school system and incarceration system are closely intertwined by a phenomenon known as the school to prison pipeline. Zero tolerance school disciplinary policies which stemmed out of the harsh tactics of the war on drugs expose students to the criminal justice system at an early age. Disciplinary measures such as suspension, expulsion, and court referrals have seen a dramatic rise in their usage since the early 90s. Although there is arguably nothing inherently wrong with these forms of discipline when used correctly, the problem lies in their common usage for minor infractions. Minor infractions are punished to the same degree as major ones. The result of such extreme measures is that students are pushed away from the opportunities education provides towards a path on which they are significantly more likely to engage in criminal activity. The school to prison pipeline is a systemic pattern that is responsible for funneling disadvantaged students directly into the prison system.

Multiple studies show that there is a significant inverse relationship between the quantity and quality of education an individual receives and the likelihood that the same individual will engage in illegal activity. My study’s primary function was to add to the growing body of literature that examines this relationship. Using NCPSR prison data and school financial records from the years 2001–2008 across over 2,000 counties, I analyzed the correlation between per pupil school funding and incarceration rates for particular crimes and concluded that there is a minor, inverse relationship between the two variables.

Although the correlation I found is small, my analysis helps to lay the groundwork for future studies, which may seek to evaluate the relationship to a greater degree. This relationship could have significant implications for future policies that recognize the importance of public education spending. Improving education is a means of decreasing illegal activity and reducing the resulting negative externalities to society, such as prison costs, police spending, and harm inflicted on the general public.