Law & Courts Commentary

Are We Criminalizing Our Students?

An overemphasis on criminal justice undermines K-12 education
By Lori Bezahler & Allison R. Brown — December 07, 2016 4 min read

It’s been said that a budget is a statement of policy, the surest way to determine the values and priorities a society embraces. How then should we interpret the extraordinary spending spree that the United States has engaged in for the past three decades, investing trillions of dollars to expand a criminal-justice system that has incarcerated millions while states struggle to provide adequate funding for education?

Despite the deep political divisions laid bare by the November election, there is an emerging consensus that we are spending too much money to put too many Americans behind bars. Our prison and jail population has tripled to about 2.2 million since 1982. As of 2013, 8 million Americans—one in 40—were behind bars or within the probation and parole system. For black residents of all ages and genders, the rate is one in 18.

The spending extends beyond our prisons. Between 1983 and 2012, we added more than 1.1 million police officers, corrections officers, prosecutors, and other justice-system employees to the public payroll.

“The $3.4 Trillion Mistake,” a recent report from Communities United, Make the Road New York, and Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, details that between 1983 and 2012, our nation spent an extra $3.4 trillion on the justice system as our spending on crime and punishment increased some 229 percent when adjusted for inflation. (These organizations receive funding and support from our respective organizations, the Edward W. Hazen Foundation and the Communities for Just Schools Fund.)

Are We Criminalizing Our Students? America’s outsize spending on criminal justice comes at the expense of schooling, write Lori Bezahler and Allison R. Brown.

The emphasis on criminal justice pervades our public schools, where an estimated 43,000 law-enforcement officers now patrol the halls. That includes 5,000 police officers in New York City alone. In Texas, 167 school districts operate their own police departments. The increased presence of police in schools has contributed to higher rates of suspension and arrest and an overall punitive culture. In California, for instance, 30,000 public school students were referred to law enforcement in the 2009-10 school year alone.

This upside-down investment actually makes schools less safe for students, in part because the presence of police and security equipment is effectively criminalizing behavior that would once have merited only a phone call home to Mom or Dad. It also reinforces and institutionalizes a broken mindset that children of color and the schools they attend are dangerous—racist stereotypes that follow children into adulthood.

At a time when state and local governments are slashing school budgets, the excessive spending on criminal justice means fewer resources for healthier school buildings, recruitment and retention of highly qualified teachers, arts and music programs, and the sort of restorative-justice practices that emphasize resolving conflict rather than suspending students.

The presence of police and security equipment is effectively criminalizing behavior that would once have merited only a phone call home to Mom or Dad."

What could we accomplish if we ended the spending binge on our bloated criminal-justice system and reinvested the money instead in our schools and communities?

There are encouraging signs that our policymakers realize the folly of spending this much money on criminal justice. Even in a deeply divided Congress, there has been bipartisan support for reforms that would end some mandatory minimum sentences and reduce mass incarceration.

But reducing spending is only half the equation. We must demand that the savings be used to bolster budgets for health care, economic development, poverty alleviation, and, perhaps most critically, education. This is justice reinvestment.

Think about it. In 2016 dollars, the hike in criminal-justice spending amounts to an extra $206 billion every year. For $159 billion a year, we could increase spending by 25 percent in every K-12 public school. Another $20 billion a year could create a universal pre-K program; $82 billion could eliminate tuition at every public college and university.

The money going directly from education budgets into policing would be better spent on increasing educators’ salaries, investing in school facilities and materials, strengthening curricula, and increasing support for all students.

Reducing criminal-justice spending can begin with school resource officers, who are often basically police officers or sheriff’s deputies who patrol our schools. Some California districts now have more police officers in their schools than counselors. While it might be possible to retrain the officers to act as pseudo-counselors, why not leave the job to the trained professionals and shift school culture to one in which the norm is healing and healthy correction, rather than punishment? That could help us create a school climate that encourages learning without the presence of law enforcement.

We have a growing consensus in this country that criminal-justice spending is way out of whack. We have an increasing recognition that justice—whether racial, social, or economic—has eluded young people who grow up furthest from opportunity. We need to fix this problem, to end the addiction to mass incarceration, and to plug the pipeline that leads from school to prison by reinvesting the millions we now spend on criminal justice in our communities, our schools, and our children.

Related Tags:


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
The Fall K-3 Classroom: What the data imply about composition, challenges and opportunities
The data tracking learning loss among the nation’s schoolchildren confirms that things are bad and getting worse. The data also tells another story — one with serious implications for the hoped for learning recovery initiatives
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
Student Well-Being Online Summit Student Mental Health
Attend this summit to learn what the data tells us about student mental health, what schools can do, and best practices to support students.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Supreme Court Lowers Bar for Life-Without-Parole Sentences for Juvenile Offenders
The justices rule 6-3 that a state does not need to find a juvenile offender “permanently incorrigible” before imposing the harsh sentence.
6 min read
The Supreme Court in Washington as seen on Oct. 7, 2020. After more than a decade in which the Supreme Court moved gradually toward more leniency for minors convicted of murder, the justices have moved the other way. The high court ruled 6-3 Thursday along ideological lines against a Mississippi inmate sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for fatally stabbing his grandfather when the defendant was 15 years old. The case is important because it marks a break with the court’s previous rulings and is evidence of the impact of a newly more conservative court.
The high court rules 6-3 along ideological lines against a Mississippi inmate sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for fatally stabbing his grandfather when the defendant was 15.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Law & Courts Decades-Old Desegregation Case Drawing to a Close in Tucson, Ariz.
After more than 40 years, the Tucson Unified School District is being released from court oversight for its decades-old desegregation case.
Danyelle Khmara, The Arizona Daily Star
5 min read
Image shows a courtroom and gavel.
Law & Courts How a Cheerleader's Snapchat Profanity Could Shape the Limits of Students' Free Speech
Brandi Levy's social media post is the basis for a case before the U.S. Supreme Court on whether schools may punish off-campus speech.
9 min read
Image of Brandi Levy.
Brandi Levy, now an 18-year-old college freshman, was a cheerleader at Mahanoy Area High School in Pennsylvania when she made profane comments on Snapchat that are now at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case on student speech rights.
Danna Singer/Provided by the American Civil Liberties Union
Law & Courts Student School Board Members Flex Their Civic Muscle in Supreme Court Free-Speech Case
Current and former student school board members add their growing voices to a potentially precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court case.
7 min read
Image of the Supreme Court.