Individuals with disabilities are over-represented in the prison system, and the disparities are rooted in a school-to-prison pipeline that punishes disadvantaged youth — it’s a trend reported nationally by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics that is mirrored in North Carolina, according to a new analysis by the state Department of Commerce’s Labor and Economic Analysis (LEAD) team.
The team used data from North Carolina’s Common Follow-Up System (CFS) — a longitudinal repository of workforce and education data — to illustrate the extent of the “school-to-prison pipeline” for young people with disabilities in the state.
We begin our analysis by following a cohort of 83,126 students who exited public high school in North Carolina, either graduating or dropping out, during the 2000 school year.1 Nearly 6.4% of these individuals entered a state prison in North Carolina within 18 years after high school — more than half of them (3.5%) within seven years [Figure 1]. Students with disabilities were much more likely than their peers without disabilities to land in prison within 18 years (12.8% versus 5.6%, respectively). Most of these students with disabilities were reported by the state Department of Public Instruction as having a specific learning disability, an umbrella category that includes dyslexia and dysgraphia.
This disparity in incarceration rates is preceded by a disparity in high school graduation rates. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that, during the 2017 school year, students with disabilities in North Carolina had a four-year high school graduation rate of only 70%, compared to 87% for all students. Our own analysis of students who exited high school during the 2000 school year finds that only 33% of those with disabilities graduated upon exit, compared to 61% of their peers without disabilities.
LEAD found that high school dropouts in North Carolina were around six times more likely to enter prison than their peers who graduated — the research matched prior data from the U.S. Census Bureau that found that 16- to 24-year-olds who dropped out of high school were six time more likely to be institutionalized than high school graduates.
Another analysis of 990,270 students who exited a North Carolina high school during the 2000-2010 school years found that incarceration rates vary widely by type of disability. In its post about the data, LEAD wrote that while some individuals have disabilities that are immediately apparent, such as those requiring the use of wheelchair or a walking cane, many struggle with “invisible disabilities” that are non-apparent but nonetheless present challenges.
Its analysis found that North Carolina students with “invisible disabilities” such as behavioral and or emotional disorders, intellectual disabilities, specific learning disabilities, and traumatic brain injury are significantly more likely to wind up in the adult correctional system in the years following high school than their peers without disabilities.
Overall, individuals with disabilities who exited high school between 2000 and 2010 were more than twice as likely to enter prison within seven years after high school than their peers without disabilities. Those with behavioral/emotional disorders were the most at risk, with nearly 20% entering prison within seven years. Individuals with intellectual disability, specific learning disabilities, or traumatic brain injury also had a significantly elevated risk of going to prison. On the other hand, those with autism or orthopedic impairment were significantly less likely to enter prison than their peers without disabilities. The likelihood of individuals with visual impairment/blindness, hearing impairment/deafness, or speech impairment going to prison was not significantly different from their peers.
The school-to-prison pipeline for youth with disabilities is not only a human tragedy, it is also a workforce challenge. Our prior research demonstrated that former prisoners in North Carolina are much less likely to find employment after release than the broader population, depriving our economy of a potentially rich source of human capital. Our state’s educators, employers, and communities all have a stake in ensuring young people with disabilities are steered toward the pathway to opportunity and diverted away from the pipeline into prison.
The research is of note, because the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts has been leading a School Justice Partnership (SJP) effort that aims to keep kids in school and out of court. SJP is a group of community stakeholders — including school administrators, the law enforcement community, court system actors, juvenile justice personnel, and others — that develops and implements effective strategies to address student misconduct, according to its website.
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley is working to implement SJPs in all 100 of North Carolina’s counties. You can learn more about the research behind SJPs here.
Read the full Department of Commerce post about school-to-prison pipeline analyses here.