Does Incarceration Feed the Achievement Gap?
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Mass incarceration of African Americans from the war on drugs feeds the achievement gap in U.S. schools, according to a new report.
The study from the Economic Policy Institute found 1-in-4 African American students has a parent who is or has been incarcerated - and an African American child is six times more likely than a white child to have a parent who has been in prison. According to Leila Morsy, senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales and co-author of the report, when parents are sent to prison, their children become more susceptible to depression, behavioral problems and ADHD.
"Their grade point average drops. They're also more likely to drop out of school,” Morsy said. "They’re less likely to vote. They're less likely to trust the government. They're also less likely to engage in community service."
African Americans are not more likely to sell or take drugs, but they are much more likely to be arrested and convicted for drug offenses. In recent years, West Virginia has worked to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders behind bars, but during the current legislative session, lawmakers look likely to toughen some drug penalties.
African Americans make up about 3 percent of West Virginia's population but nearly 30 percent of the inmates in prisons and jails.
Ames Grawert, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said reforming the criminal justice system will improve children's educational prospects, and not just that.
"Having spent time in prison is significantly worse for someone's prospects going forward, for the prospects of somebody's family going forwards than just having been through, say, probation,” Grawert said.
Morsy stressed that sentencing reform and increased educational and employment opportunities for released offenders also would benefit those left behind when a parent goes to jail.
"Improvements in our criminal justice policies will lead to improved outcomes for children,” she said. "It will make teachers' jobs easier and are very likely to contribute to narrowing the achievement gap."
In 2014, more than 600,000 inmates nationally were serving sentences of a year or more in state prisons for nonviolent crimes.