Children growing up in 'offender hometowns' face long odds

Downtown Detroit (file 2017)
Downtown Detroit (file 2017)
Robin Buckson, The Detroit News

Although criminology is an imprecise science, research has shown that an education and employment are crucial factors for reducing crime and poverty. Two data points from Michigan appear to back up this correlation.

We asked the Michigan Department of Corrections to look at home addresses for prisoners with a residence record, and then rank Michigan’s ZIP codes by the number of prisoner residences they contain. The top 25 ZIP codes cover the places you’d expect: Detroit, Benton Harbor, Flint, Grand Rapids, Pontiac, Muskegon, Port Huron, Saginaw and Jackson.

Then we checked out the school performance data for these “offender hometowns.” While state and national achievement test results have raised concerns about Michigan’s flagging academic performance overall, it turns out that students growing up in these places face even worse prospects.

If kids aren't reading well by third grade, they are significantly more likely not to finish high school. Struggling readers have a harder time keeping up as they progress through the system. Five out of six third-graders in offender hometowns cannot read proficiently, compared with 56 percent who miss the mark statewide.

Only two-thirds of those entering high school in an offender hometown graduated on time last year, short of the statewide rate of 80 percent. But an even bigger disparity comes with what happens next: Roughly half of Michigan teens who entered high school as freshmen in 2013 started some kind of postsecondary education four years later. In offender hometowns, that figure is only 30 percent. Only 15 percent of those students enrolled in a four-year college, half the rate as their peers across Michigan.

Students in these schools are far more likely to come from low-income families. Poverty’s impacts put many of these students behind at the outset of their learning, and those who get derailed are more likely to engage in risky or criminal behavior.

This is partly explained by a concept called “path dependency,” the idea that one’s current array of options depends on previously made choices. When it comes to socioeconomic status, one’s path is largely set by one’s parents. While children of high-income parents easily meet education benchmarks, children from low-income households miss early benchmarks and are then less likely to meet later ones, and fall progressively further behind. The same applies to criminality — children growing up in a dangerous or antisocial environment are at higher risk of offending later in life, especially if one or more of their parents winds up on the wrong side of the law.

This means that effective schooling is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet for disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. To wield it, we need to create healthy, safe environments for today’s kids to grow up in, and provide a wide array of effective education options to ensure that each kid has a chance to learn to the best of his ability.

Michigan has helped at least a bit along these lines by allowing for the communities to create public charter schools. Students in offender hometowns have a better shot at reaching college if they attend a charter high school. This is true despite the odds: Michigan's public charters are generally more concentrated in challenging urban areas and serve a higher proportion of low-income students. While these charters’ overall results don't match those in more stable and affluent communities, they are modestly more successful than nearby schools at leading students to better post-high school opportunities.

Private and religious schools are underrepresented in these offender hometowns – serving 4 percent of students compared to 7 percent statewide. There is reason to believe communities would benefit from more access to these options. A 2016 study found that Milwaukee students who received a voucher and stayed in private school through 12th grade were significantly less likely to commit crime and end up in prison.

downtown Flint. (file 2016)
downtown Flint. (file 2016)
Paul Sancya, AP

Even better-documented strategies exist for creating safer communities for kids to grow and develop in. Implement community policing that focuses on deterring crime from happening in the first place. Ensure that offenders are not over-incarcerated, which has been shown by the National Institute of Corrections to increase the odds they’ll offend again. And enact policies that help returning offenders get jobs and reintegrate successfully into society.

In some ways, the poor school performance in offender hometowns is hardly news. It matches what researchers have learned over the years studying poverty, crime and society. But it’s our hope that a clearer breakdown of the results will start a conversation about the surprisingly simple answer to perpetually politicized issues. Another generation cannot afford to wait.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Kahryn Riley manages the Center’s criminal justice reform initiative.

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