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"The Cradle to Prison Pipeline℠ Crisis,"

by Morna Murray July/August 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

At present rates, a significantly higher proportion of Black men will go to prison than will receive a college degree. Right now, over 580,000 Black males and over 250,000 Latino males are in prison; fewer than 40,000 Black males and 33,000 Latino males graduate from college each year. There is no single reason for these disturbing trends, but one thing is clear: The only guarantee our nation will provide for every child is detention or a prison cell after they get into trouble. At critical points in their development, from birth through adulthood, low-income children of color confront a multitude of disadvantages, which, when accumulated, make a successful transition to adulthood significantly less likely and involvement in the criminal justice system significantly more likely. Our society has done painfully little to address these disadvantages, and at times has helped perpetuate them by promoting policies that consistently have a disparate, negative impact on poor and minority children.

Such disadvantages range from lack of access to prenatal and other health and mental health care, to unstable parenting, to insufficient and ineffective early childhood interventions, to inadequate responses when abuse or neglect or other crises arise, to racial and economic disparities and inequities in education, child welfare and the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Without significant interventions to remove these multiple, accumulated obstacles, poor and minority youth are forced to compete on an unequal playing field and many fall inexorably behind. Once behind, these children find themselves increasingly off the path to work and college and increasingly on the path to prison.

The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has monitored with deep and growing concern the vast numbers of young Black and Latino males (and, increasingly, minority females) being confined in our juvenile justice and adult penal systems. Our forthcoming commissioned report, “Dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline,” illustrates this phenomenon, using real stories from children and experts interviewed in Ohio and Mississippi, along with highlights from programs around the country that are working, and also including comments and insights from children and young adults who have escaped the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. The report tells difficult stories about the lives of children, but also gives hope. Many children escape the pipeline, with the help of caring adults and communities and effective programs and child-serving systems.

Documenting the Cradle to Prison Pipeline

Existing research documents the pipeline from two compelling perspectives. First, we know the risks that lead to poor outcomes, delinquency and incarceration. Second, we know that poor and minority children experience these risks at a disproportionately high rate. CDF, in its upcoming report, will present a sampling of research and statistics on the prevalence and disproportionality of several major risk areas or “indicators” that, directly and indirectly, feed the pipeline to prison, including: prenatal and subsequent health care; early childhood development; education; child abuse and neglect; mental health; juvenile delinquency; and poverty.

Three significant risk areas—feeding children directly into the pipeline with an accelerated and heightened chance of incarceration—involve the child welfare, education and juvenile justice systems. Research conclusively establishes that children who are abused and neglected, children who drop out of high school and children who are arrested as juveniles are at greater risk of adult incarceration. There is a direct association between these risk factors and incarceration. But these three risk factors are exacerbated and fed by other risk factors, such as poverty, which can thus be viewed as indirect associations or risk factors for incarceration. For example, children living in extreme poverty are more involved in serious juvenile delinquency, and juveniles who are arrested or adjudicated delinquent experience a higher rate of adult arrests.

The result of these risk factor interrelationships is a highly complex and convoluted Cradle to Prison Pipeline phenomenon that traps a disproportionate number of poor and minority children. Moreover, research shows that an accumulation of risk factors makes it even more likely that children will be pulled into the pipeline, and this likelihood increases dramatically, along with the number of risk factors.

How We Can Work Together to Dismantle the Pipeline

We want all concerned adults to realize that we can and must do something about the pipeline to prison. It is hardly surprising that many parents, service providers, policymakers, educators, system personnel, and community and faith leaders are discouraged by the realities of children they see trapped in the pipeline. It is tempting to look for easy answers to explain its seeming intractability. The real answers are hard and often politically unpopular. While some parents are not trying hard enough, the vast majority of poor children live in families who work hard and play by the rules and still have been left behind.

Incarceration, by virtue of receiving so much public money, has become America’s social program for troubled youths. Meanwhile, early childhood prevention, health and mental health screening and treatment, foster care, adoption assistance, substance abuse treatment, quality education, after-school, mentoring and other less expensive and much more effective programs for at-risk youths and their families face constant cutbacks and budget shortages. The absence of such systemic and programmatic assistance is exactly what makes incarceration more likely. Given the current budget crisis and current national priorities, we are more likely to pay for the eventual imprisonment of at-risk children than for proven interventions now that could put them on the path to meaningful lives. This makes neither moral nor economic sense.

All children need quality health and mental health care, proper food and nourishment, good schools, and safe homes and communities. Every child needs a caring mother and/or father, grandparent or other adult to feel safe and loved. All children need parents and care-givers who are not broken down or chronically depressed by the struggle to survive, find and keep jobs, earn enough money to pay the rent and light and heating bills, and have transportation to go to work. They need adults who value and respect and help them succeed. Every single adult who comes into contact with a child can make a difference every day.

This December, CDF will assemble key state leaders at its Cradle to Prison PipelineSM Institute to examine comprehensive and collaborative strategies for dismantling the pipeline. There is a role for all concerned adults who care about children. There are many levels at which we can dismantle the Cradle to Prison Pipeline, but in order to truly leave no child behind, we must address them all—families, community-based programs and services, all child-serving systems, and state and federal policies that determine the available resources and priorities of child-serving programs and systems.

CDF is committed to dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline tragedy at every level, and we call upon all concerned citizens to join us. We must not give up on any child. Prison is not a foregone conclusion for any child.

Morna Murray is Co-Director of Education and Youth Development at the Children's Defense Fund, where she focuses on juvenile justice issues, violence prevention and advocacy on behalf of at-risk youth, and directs CDF's Cradle to Prison Pipeline project.

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