chicago metropolitan correctional center


Not long ago, the Tribune did an excellent series on absenteeism and truancy in Chicago Public Schools, highlighting the extent of the problem and looking at possible solutions to it; it's well worth your time:

Absenteeism in the elementary grades is especially acute in African-American communities on the South and West sides scarred by gang violence, crippling unemployment and grinding poverty.

Counting truancy, excused absences and gaps in enrollment, more than 20 percent of black elementary school students missed at least four weeks of class in 2010-11, compared with 7 percent of whites and 8 percent of Hispanics.

Coming on the heels of that series is a new study by David S. Kirk, a former U. of C. Ph.D. who now teaches at UT-Austin, and Robert Sampson, the ex-U. of C. and current Harvard sociologist (and author of Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect) on the connections between arrests and school dropouts in Chicago. To begin with, arrest rates are very high (PDF):

Indeed, there are roughly 9 arrests each year for every 100 male youths aged 10 to 17 in the United States (OJJDP 2009). In Chicago, as in many metropolitan areas, the rate is considerably higher. There are roughly 25,000 arrests of male youths in Chicago each year, equating to a rate of 15 per 100 males (Chicago Police Department 2006). One-quarter of these arrests occur in school.

15 percent is pretty high, but not as high as the incarceration rate among young black male high-school dropouts: "Roughly 60 percent of this segment of society can expect to spend time in prison by age 34." The question they're trying to address is whether that's essentially an endpoint in a long process: "prisons may be the warehouses for containing those segments of society already marginalized, in contrast to being the primary source of that marginalization."

So a lot of school-age kids get arrested; Kirk and Sampson find that arrests then cause those kids to get bumped out of school, for obvious and defensible reasons—trying to keep the schools safe for the students who are there. If this doesn't happen, there's still the matter of educational time lost in the path through the justice system, and a record can dog students who want to go to college, as lots of schools consider criminal histories and even pending charges. A record of drug sales or possession can nix student loan or Pell Grant availability.

The differences between arrested students and non-arrested students is pretty dramatic:

Descriptively, our data reveal that of the Chicago public school students who steered clear of the juvenile justice system, 64 percent went on to graduate high school. In contrast, a mere 26 percent of arrested students graduated high school. Of those young adults without a criminal record who graduated high school or obtained a GED, 35 percent enrolled in a 4-year college. Yet for arrestees, 16 percent subsequently enrolled in a 4-year college.

Of course, that raises an important question: does arrest really hurt students' chances at a high school or college degree, or are students who get arrested just a lot less likely to graduate anyway? It's a tricky one, because getting arrested is kind of a crapshoot; someone innocent or tangentially involved in a crime can get busted, while someone actually committing a crime has a reasonable chance of getting away with it. Using different variables, Kirk and Sampson compared arrested students to otherwise similar non-arrested students.

Those who were not arrested in this smaller group had a substantially lower probability of finishing high school compared to all CPS students who don't get arrested, as you might expect, but it only drops 13 percent from the broader group to about half. Those who were arrested had less than 25 percent chance of graduating.

Our analysis shows that arrest in adolescence hinders the transition to adulthood by undermining pathways to educational attainment. Among Chicago adolescents otherwise equivalent on pre-arrest characteristics, 73 percent of those arrested later dropped out of high school compared to 51 percent of those not arrested, a substantial difference of 22 percent.

Sophisticated as their analysis is, data's still a blunt tool to dissect why thousands of people all do what they do, but it can raise good questions:

What explains the apparently large effect of arrest on the educational life of adolescents? This is a crucial question that yielded an uncertain answer. After identifying the gap in educational attainment between arrestees and otherwise equivalent non-arrestees, we examined whether the effect of arrest on high school dropout is explained by declines in educational expectations, school attachment, or friend support. We found little evidence in support of these mediating mechanisms…. Indeed, by ruling out the importance of such person-level mechanisms, our analyses direct attention to the importance of institutional responses and the increasingly punitive “zero tolerance” educational climate (Nolan 2011) in the path to dropout.

Zero-tolerance is a difficult issue. It's supposed to keep the "bad kids" away from the "good kids," so that the latter can learn in an environment of focus and safety. But Kirk and Sampson's analysis does ask whether the good kids and the bad kids are actually being routed where our policies intend them to be, and spotlights the problems of the "life-course trap" of juvenile arrest.


Photograph: John Picken (CC by 2.0)