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Education and Crime - Conclusions And Implications

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Criminologists who believe that propensity for adult criminality is established in early childhood attempt to dismiss empirical research that identifies significant school effects on delinquency and crime. These critics argue that selection bias accounts for education-crime associations. That is, some criminologists will argue that both educational and criminal trajectories are set at a very early preschool age. By the time that children enter school, the argument goes, families (or genetics) have already produced "bad kids." Individuals fail in school because they lack social control: failure in school thus reflects individual-level socialization problems that underlie criminal propensity; poor educational performance itself therefore does not produce criminal behavior. While some criminologists might still argue this position, it is fundamentally inconsistent with the larger social scientific research community's understanding of the role of education in life course development. At least since the late 1960s, social scientists have recognized that educational experience has come to mediate the relationship between social origins and adult life-course outcomes. While poorly socialized youth certainly are less likely to do well in terms of educational attainment, schools—if properly structured—can successfully counter these tendencies. Schools are institutions that can serve as "turning points" in individual lives. As the criminologists John Laub and Robert Sampson have argued: "despite the connection between childhood events and experiences in adulthood, turning points can modify life trajectories—they can 'redirect paths."'

Since schools play a critical role in determining the likelihood of delinquency, crime, and incarceration, policymakers historically have turned to educational reform to address social problems associated with adolescent delinquency and adult criminality. The last two decades of the twentieth century, however, were exceptional in U.S. history in terms of both educational and criminological policy. In unprecedented ways, policymakers have relied on incapacitation by the penal system to address the crime problem in society. Concurrently, educational policy has lost its focus on designing programs to integrate and socialize economically disadvantaged youths to become productive members of society. Instead, educational policymakers have become fixated on the narrow task of improving school performance and efficiency in terms of measurable student gains on cognitive standardized tests. While prison rolls have more than doubled in the last two decades of the twentieth century, high school vocational education enrollments have plummeted as the programs have been dismantled due to their high cost. While the penal system has demanded an increasing portion of local, state, and federal finances, educational budgets have struggled just to keep up with inflation and demographic growth in school age populations. While government officials increasingly threaten to sanction schools for the lack of student progress on cognitive tests, schools as institutions have become legally constrained from applying disciplinary sanctions to maintain peer climates conducive to learning and socialization. How policy reformers reconcile these tensions and contradictions in educational and social policy will determine the character of the education-crime relationship in the future.

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