A Smart Kid Derailed by the System

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John Last 1The first job I landed after my release from prison was for a company that specialized in solar panels and high-efficiency heating and air equipment. It was a relatively small start up, lead by a husband and wife team who were interested not only in entrepreneurship but also in providing work to people who needed a little help.

Several of us had criminal records. Some of the guys didn’t have stable housing or transportation. All of us were in one way or another outside of the mainstream of job applicants, and this in a time when the economy was headed downward.

One young man was a member of their church. He was intelligent, friendly, and well spoken, and I wondered how he found himself in our company. I was talking with him one morning, and asked if he was planning to go to college or technical school. He wasn’t, and when I inquired why he explained that he was ineligible for the grants and loans that would make it affordable for him to attend. It turned out that as a juvenile he had been convicted of selling drugs. One of the collateral consequences of his conviction was the ban on receiving assistance for school.

The link between educational achievement, earnings and unemployment, both concrete markers of success, is clear. Also clear is the impact of arrest on juvenile educational outcomes. Robert Sampson and David Kirk outline in a recent paper for the American Sociological Association. Juvenile Arrest and Collateral Educational Damage in the Transition to Adulthood explores what mechanisms might be at play in this link. Theories abound about what underlies the link. “[L]ow self-control, lack of parental supervision, deviant peers, and neighborhood disadvantage” have all been proposed. These factors are often noticeable in teens involved with the system, but as always, correlation doesn’t equal causation.

Sampson and Kirk take this into account, isolating system involvement from personal characteristics, neighborhoods, schools, family, and criminal offending. They found that arrest, independent of these other variables, “has a substantively large and robust impact on dropping out of school.” Additionally, there is a “significant gap” in college enrollment.

The takeaway message here is that institutional responses, not personal level factors like support of friends and family, are the reason for the strong effect of arrest. The bad news is that even if a kid who is arrested has a lot of interpersonal resources, he isn’t going to be helped much by them. The good news is that policies in government and schools can be changed.

Reducing zero tolerance, increasing diversionary programs, and removing boundaries to financial assistance are all possibilities, With a clearer understanding of what mechanisms are at work we can make changes that will have a real and lasting impact.

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