In 2010, I [co-author Willa Seldon] was sitting in my former office at the Glide Foundation when one of our front-line staffers (let's call him Dan) rushed in. "They called the police on my daughter," he said. "The school called the police!" His daughter was six years old. She had had another tantrum. By the time Dan and two of Glide's leaders arrived, there were two police cars at the school, and a policeman was there with his daughter.
Glide, a large multiservice agency in San Francisco, has a mission to alleviate suffering and break cycles of poverty. It goes without saying that we would support our valued employee and his daughter--and we did. (In fact, last year one of Glide's leaders finally convinced Dan to move his daughter to a KIPP School, which offers her a brighter future.)
I shudder to think of my own daughter, who certainly had her share of tantrums, being locked in a room, confronted by the police, or taken out of a classroom because of normal, age-appropriate behavior. Dan's six-year old experienced all of this.
Dan's story is all too common. Today, the criminal justice system culls "criminals" from our youngest classrooms. The fact is, over-criminalization, even of children, is a nationwide pattern. And the low-income African-American communities that feel this pattern most acutely rarely have anyone in their corner when the police are called.
Consider this Pew Charitable Trust finding: the United States is home to only five percent of the world's population--and yet we house more than 25 percent of its prisoners. Over-criminalization now tops $80 billion a year in costs to society, according to the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project statistics.
But the cost to individual lives--both for those incarcerated and the families left behind--is also profound. When we use criminal law to "solve" society's problems, we trap millions of Americans at the bottom of the income ladder. Forms of punishment and criminalization, from school suspensions to convictions, dramatically lowers the likelihood of being middle class by age 40. Research from the Population Reference Bureau shows that a criminal record too often bars people from developing the skills that lead to better paying jobs. (About 70 percent of state prisoners have not completed high school, a critical milestone to the middle class.)
In a newly released report, 'Billion Dollar Bets' to Create Economic Opportunity for Every American, The Bridgespan Group identifies 15 areas in which philanthropy can help restore economic opportunity for millions of low-income Americans who are trapped in the economy's basement. One of the paper's proposed investments targets over-criminalization, an often insurmountable obstacle to the middle class--especially for people of color. (In coming weeks Bridgespan will be publishing a paper that takes a deeper look at this pathway. Sign up for Bridgespan's Advancing Philanthropy alert to be notified.)
Black Children and Youth Pay a Hefty Price
The phenomenon of over-policing affects young people--and disproportionately, African-American young people--in multiple ways.
For starters, according to Pew, in the United States today, nearly three million black children have at least one incarcerated parent. In other words, 1 in 9 black children has a parent in jail or prison--compared to 1 in 28 Hispanic children and 1 in 56 white children. These children are more likely to have lower family income and increased difficulty in school, both of which will affect their ability to climb the ladder to the middle class.
When their parents do get out of jail, life is not likely to get much easier, given the difficulties former prisoners face in accessing things like food stamps, housing, education, and employment. A full 60 percent of people who were incarcerated cannot secure a job within a year of their release. In many ways, a jail or prison term of any length can translate into a life-sentence of poverty for an entire family.
What's more, because high levels of incarceration tend to be concentrated in particular areas, entire communities often suffer the economic and social repercussions.
Meanwhile, overly punitive measures are funneling black children into the school-to-prison pipeline at very young ages. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights reported that while black children represented just 18 percent of preschool enrollees, they accounted for 48 percent of children suspended from preschool.
Over all, black students were more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled from school. Such events are hugely damaging: researchers from John Hopkins University's School of Education found that a single suspension in ninth grade doubles a student's risk of dropping out before he graduates.
Best Bet: Avoid Police Interactions Altogether
Research shows that any interaction with the criminal justice system produces negative outcomes for individuals. It follows that preventing brushes with the law is critical for decreasing over-criminalization.
School is a natural starting place. Of course, schools need to be safe before real learning can begin. But when schools resort to suspending and expelling students for minor infractions or fail to offer second chances, they contribute to criminalizing adolescent behavior. And when schools use police officers as security guards within their walls, they further escalate tensions.
Today, several community-based initiatives are working with teachers and faculty to understand the impact of their disciplinary policies and to create new ones, as well as to develop practices that help educators avoid bias.
Outside of schools, programs are attempting to improve community policing and eliminate laws that disproportionately target and harm African-American communities. There is burgeoning interest in shifting approaches to ensure more equitable treatment--and for those who do become involved in the criminal justice system, to ensure their experience is rehabilitative rather than exclusively punitive.
Opportunities for Philanthropy
Despite these and other efforts, we have a long way to go before we crack the over-criminalization conundrum. Even though crime rates have declined steadily since the early 1990s, Bureau of Justice statistics show the prison population quintupling between 1980 and 2013.
For philanthropists seeking to increase upward mobility for those who are stuck on the income ladder's lowest rungs, betting big on decreasing over-criminalization is a powerful opportunity. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation did just that when it recently launched a $75 million Safety & Justice Challenge investment to encourage 20 jurisdictions to find ways to "keep people out of jail who don't belong there, more effectively reintegrate those who must be confined into the community upon release, and help them stay out of jail thereafter."
To reform the $80 billion criminal justice system, much more is needed. Philanthropists can build on existing initiatives and create additional public/private partnerships to restructure public funding streams and fundamentally change the manner in which the criminal justice system operates in communities, schools, and courtrooms. Philanthropy can also put muscle behind solutions that have been found to be effective and invest in advocacy efforts to change policy.
At the end of the day, real progress will only come when we invest in changing attitudes and behaviors about race, income, and other disparities that deny low-income Americans equal opportunity to improve their lives.
--Willa Seldon and Debby Bielak are partners in The Bridgespan Group's San Francisco office. Along with 2015 Bridgespan Fellow Jim Shelton and manager Devin Murphy, Bielak is the co-author of the Bridgespan report, "''Billion Dollar Bets' to Create Economic Opportunity for Every American.
The authors thank Consultant Rose Martin for her contributions to this article.