The School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Primer for Social Workers

Soc Work. 2017 Jan 1;62(1):53-61. doi: 10.1093/sw/sww078.


The school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) refers to a path from the education system to the juvenile or adult criminal justice system. Over the past two decades, this path has grown significantly, and scholars attribute a myriad of contributing factors to this increase. Each factor has its own impact and consequences, which are covered in detail based on an extensive literature review and macro practice through Race Matters for Juvenile Justice. Prior to the STPP concept, education had largely been considered a protective factor for children and a route to success as opposed to a risk factor or track toward juvenile justice involvement. Staying in school and getting good grades were regarded as strategies that even at-risk students could use to overcome poverty, prejudice, and powerlessness. But since the 1990s, the approach to discipline in U.S. public schools has changed, and the effects of this change are only now becoming evident. This article explains the correlates of the STPP and its disparate outcomes, most notably for students of color; those with disabilities; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning students. The article concludes with implications for social workers in various settings and specific strategies for reducing the impact of the STPP.

Keywords: decarceration; juvenile justice; risk and resiliency; school discipline; school-to-prison pipeline.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Female
  • Health Status Disparities
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Minority Groups / psychology*
  • Prisoners / psychology*
  • Prisons / trends*
  • Schools / trends*
  • Social Work / methods
  • Students / psychology*
  • Young Adult