Monday, August 25, 2008

Back to School: Fight Crime, Invest in Kids

As Texas kids head back to school today, it's worth raising the question of whether too much public debate is focused on crime and punishment and too little on investments in education and mental health care that might prevent more incarceration.

That's the gist of the "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids" initiative proposed recently by a national coalition of police, prosecutors and crime victims. I agree with Doc Berman that education and crime are too seldom linked in the public discourse. That's not just a "framing strategy," as Dan Filler put it it's a valid interpretation of the data that's become unpopular in recent years because of political arguments labeling its proponents "liberal" or "soft on crime." However, that doesn't invalidate the stance or reduce its import to mere clever political posturing. From the group's press release:
Research shows that high school dropouts are three and a half times more likely than graduates to be arrested and eight times more likely to be incarcerated. Nineteen of the top 25 largest U.S. cities have school districts where 40 percent or more of students do not graduate on time. Nearly 70 percent of all inmates in our nation's prisons failed to earn a high school diploma.

The law enforcement leaders are members of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national anti-crime organization made up of over 4,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys, and violence survivors. They called on Congress and state lawmakers to expand pre-kindergarten, one of the most effective strategies to increase graduation rates.

"If kids get strong start early in life, we can cut our dropout rate and improve our communities," Lynch said. "To help more kids get that strong start, we need to fund early childhood education programs and ensure that every child that qualifies is able to enroll."

The Fight Crime: Invest in Kids members released a report called "School or the Streets," showing that increasing graduation rates by 10 percentage points will prevent 3,000 murders and 175,000 aggravated assaults in America every year.
To the extent those estimates are accurate, failures by Texas public schools on a massive scale contribute mightily to the expanding prison population.

In May, former Secretary of State Collin Powell's organization, America's Promise, issued these data regarding dropout 4-year graduation rates in the largest Texas cities:
Dallas: 44.4%
Houston: 54.6%
San Antonio: 51.9%
Austin: 58.2%
Fort Worth: 55.5%
As Grits argued in reaction to that analysis, there are particular subgroups among dropouts who account for a disproportionate amount of crime and public safety resources:
Straight-up illiteracy is a key criminogenic factor. It's long been known, for example, that while dyslexics make up about 10% of students, they make up 30% or more of those in prison.

As far as reducing crime, an even more important subcategory are kids with incarcerated parents, who tend to be 6-8 times more likely than their peers to wind up incarcerated themselves. Making sure those kids stay in school and have real opportunities to succeed might be the single most important contribution society could make to reducing future crime.
Texas' massive prison system shows it does a good job of holding its citizens accountable (one in 21 adult Texans are in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole), but these high dropout rates show there's been little progress made holding schools accountable for their frankly lousy outcomes.

I spend a lot of time on this blog looking at the back end of the system's failures and how we manage those who've already violated societal rules. But there's little question reducing those massive dropout rates would reduce crime and systemic pressure on the front end better than anything that could be done after people have already offended. Worth contemplating, certainly, as everybody heads back to school.


Anonymous said...

The statistics make "No child left behind" a out and out lie.

Education is the foundation to a stong democracy and I agree with you it is important for public safety.

The reduction of incarceration rates has to be done by eliminating crimes with no victims that unjustly punish society. Everyone pays a very high price whith each and every person tht is sentpeople to prison.

Anonymous said...

Staggering numbers, Scott.


Bill Betzen said...

The dropout rate numbers given in this article are NOT dropout rates but graduation rates! Dallas actually only had 41% of the 9th grade enrollment from the class of 2008 receive a diploma! Look at the numbers at Our dropout/attrition rate is 59%! It is not a pretty picture! Dallas is at the bottom of the heap in Texas for the worst statistics.

The good news is that our School Archive Project in Dallas is lowering these same dropout rates over 25% with a project costing $2/student. Can we ignore that? Study the details at

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks for the correction, folks, I fixed it in the text.

Anonymous said...

It's painfully obvious that if Texas would spend half what it spends on prisons instead on schools, they wouldn't need all the prisons. When they've finally locked up half the population of Texas, and the other half is footing the bill, we can give it all back to Mexico. Good riddance. An EX-Texas resident.

Anonymous said...

Well, we can say: "If kids get strong start early in life, we can cut our dropout rate and improve our communities," Lynch said. "To help more kids get that strong start, we need to fund early childhood education programs and ensure that every child that qualifies is able to enroll."

Other folks say, why do we always let the child's father off the hook? Why be so eager to shift this responsibility to the tax payers? You may say nobody can locate these fathers. Well, think about that - they are invisible now but were they always invisible? Doesn't at least one person know their name?

Anonymous said...

By the time the kid is born the father is "unknown." If you don't believe me, just look at the birth certificates. Father's name is left blank. How does this happen? What happens to memory in nine months?

I know that many are eager to rush in and foot the bill (taxes) for Mr. Unknown, but shouldn't his name at least be listed?

Is that too much to ask? Some of us would even say, "why not collect from Mr. Unknown.?" said...

Quite useful piece of writing, thanks for this post.