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Education and Crime

Mechanisms Producing Education-crime Associations, Crime And Educational Performance, Variation In The Structure Of Schooling And Crime

In modern societies, an individual's life trajectory—including an individual's involvement in criminal activity—has become increasingly determined by his or her educational experiences. Over the past few centuries, schools have in many ways come to challenge families as the primary site for childhood socialization. The expanding role of formal education in the lives of youth has many causes. Economic production has become more dependent on cognitive skills taught in schools. Work has become typically set off from home life, limiting parents' ability to monitor and train children informally. Increasing female labor participation rates in recent decades have accelerated this trend, with over twothirds of mothers with children under age eighteen now currently employed. At the same time that work responsibilities have increasingly separated parents from their children, public education has been expanded to command greater portions of a youth's time. At the beginning of the nineteenth century only about ten percent of U.S. individuals age fourteen to seventeen attended high school; by the end of the century, only about ten percent of young adults failed to complete high school. As recently as in the 1940s, less than ten percent of individuals attained a bachelor's degree; by the end of the century, almost one-third of young adults were expected to attain such degrees. Not only have the number of years an individual is involved in a formal education system increased, but the amount of time per year has also dramatically expanded. The length of the school day has grown and the days in an academic school year have roughly doubled over the past century.

Research has clearly demonstrated how an individual's educational outcomes structure a wide range of adult life-course outcomes. Given the prominent role of education in an individual's life, educational experience has both significant direct and indirect effects on criminality. Over the past decade, educational experience has come to mediate the influence of social background on occupational destinations. By the end of the twentieth century, educational attainment had come to replace social origins as the primary determinant of occupational status, earnings, and even one's choice of marital partners. It is not surprising, therefore, that educational attainment plays a prominent role in explaining who is likely to commit criminal acts or subsequently to become incarcerated. Individuals who are incarcerated are less likely to have had previous success either in labor or marriage markets: about half of jail and prison inmates have never been married, close to half were unemployed prior to incarceration, and more than half had been living in poverty. More direct effects of educational experience are apparent when one examines the educational characteristics of those who are incarcerated. Only about 28 percent of incarcerated individuals in state and federal prisons have successfully graduated from high school (U.S. Department of Justice).

Schools play such a critical role in adult life-course outcomes because they affect individuals through several important social mechanisms. Schools are responsible for the socialization of youth. Schools work to train individuals for different roles in society and thus determine the selection of individuals for the allocation of scarce resources. Schools also structure an individual's interpersonal interactions and associations. The criminological significance of these distinct educational functions will first be explored and then connected to the relationship between crime and variation in educational performance and the structure of schooling. Lastly, conclusions and implications about the relationship between education and crime will be identified.


Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law