The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mass incarceration of African Americans affects the racial achievement gap — report

An inmate watches from his cell as Mayor Muriel E. Bowser tours D.C. Central Jail after announcing policy changes to support employment for inmates during and after incarceration. (J. Lawler Duggan for The Washington Post)


* By the age of 14, approximately 25 percent of African American children have experienced a parent — in most cases a father — being imprisoned for some period of time. On any given school day, approximately 10 percent of African American schoolchildren have a parent who is in jail or prison, more than four times the share in 1980.

* The comparable share for white children is 4 percent; an African American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent.

* A growing share of African Americans have been arrested for drug crimes, yet African Americans are no more likely than whites to sell or use drugs. Of imprisoned fathers of African American children, only one-third are in prison because of a violent crime.

* Research in criminal justice, health, sociology, epidemiology, and economics demonstrates that when parents are incarcerated, children do worse across cognitive and noncognitive outcome measures — and the incarceration is a key cause. For example, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school; develop learning disabilities; misbehave in school; suffer from migraines, asthma, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and homelessness.

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Those are findings from a new report released by the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute that says the “evidence is overwhelming that the unjustified incarceration of African American fathers (and, increasingly, mothers as well) is an important cause of the lowered performance of their children” and of the racial achievement gap.

When parents are imprisoned, it is not only they who suffer, but also their offspring. The number of children affected has grown to the point that we can reasonably infer that our criminal justice system is making an important contribution to the racial achievement gap in both cognitive and noncognitive skills.

The report also says that educators should view criminal justice reform as a key part of school reform and join forces with reformers in the area of criminal justice.

Educators have paid too little heed to this criminal justice crisis. Criminal justice reform should be a policy priority for educators who are committed to improving the achievement of African American children. While reform of federal policy may seem implausible in a Trump administration, educators can seize opportunities for such advocacy at state and local levels because many more parents are incarcerated in state than in federal prisons. In 2014, over 700,000 prisoners nationwide were serving sentences of a year or longer for nonviolent crimes. Over 600,000 of these were in state, not federal, prisons.

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The report was done by Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein, both of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization created in 1986 to broaden the discussion about economic policy to include the interests of low- and middle-income workers. Morsy is a senior lecturer in education at the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, and a research associate at EPI. Rothstein is also an EPI research associate as well as a senior fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and author of the forthcoming “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” A former national education writer for the New York Times, Rothstein also has written books that include “Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right,” and “Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap.”

A discussion of this research will be held on Wednesday at the Economic Policy Institute and livestreamed on the EPI website. (Note: I am moderating.)

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Here’s the full report:

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