Education is Key to Public Safety

WASHINGTON, D.C. — According to a study released today by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), policymakers in D.C. need to look beyond policing and incarceration when it comes to the city’s public safety strategy.  Instead, they should adopt a holistic approach that prevents justice system involvement in the first place. In particular, education has been shown to reduce contact with the justice system both for youth and adults. The District has a troubling history of lagging behind the rest of the nation in ensuring the educational success of its students, particularly those from communities of color. As people who experience barriers to educational achievement are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, it makes good sense to focus on improving education outcomes as a way to increase public safety.

The Education of D.C.: How Washington D.C.’s investments in education can help increase public safety investigates the intersection of public safety and education and the troubling disparities that exist in the city. In Wards 7 and 8, which are home to the greatest percentage of the school-aged population, there is serious need to commit resources to level the playing field so youth there can meet their potential. For example, the D.C. Public School Preschool program only has space for approximately 18.4 percent of youth living in the District under the age of five, despite early childhood education being linked to improved outcomes for youth.

“Investments in education lead to better paying jobs, stronger community ties and a decreased risk for crime,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI. “There’s plenty of ink spilled to point out the mistakes of D.C.’s youth, but not enough used to talk about what we adults can do to help the City’s kids succeed. Supporting public safety means investing in our youth; and the place to start is in the classroom.”

As The Education of D.C. points out, there is remarkable disparity in educational attainment across D.C. From 2006-2008, nearly all (99 percent) adult Whites 25 years and older had completed a high school education; comparatively, 80 percent of Blacks and 57 percent of Hispanics had received a high school degree. This crisis begins at the elementary school level; by fourth grade, there is already a 62 percentage point gap in the number of students reading at or above grade level.

“The right answer – and the right thing to do — is to keep young people in school,” added Joseph B. Tulman, Director of the Took Crowell Institute at the U.D.C. David A. Clarke School of Law. “Pushing children who miss school into the delinquency system defies common sense; it is counter-productive. When authorities use aversive responses and promote punitive policies, they increase kids’ alienation from school and decrease the likelihood that those kids will pass to the next grade and ultimately graduate from high school. We know what works:  school-wide positive behavioral programs, along with individualized services for students who have particularly difficult circumstances that contribute to school exclusion and absences.”

The Education of D.C. includes a number of recommendations for crafting an effective public safety strategy by supporting D.C.’s youth and investing in smart, proven education policies:

  • Invest more money into education instead of the criminal justice system. States with higher levels of educational attainment also have crime rates lower than the national average. By choosing to invest in providing more resources for education, Washington, D.C. could implement a long term public safety strategy to reduce justice system involvement and costs, invest in youth and further strengthen communities.
  • Invest more in parks and recreation, after school care and mentoring programs. Providing children with safe spaces to play and programming to enhance their education and further build community ties can help to reduce justice system involvement promote positive life outcomes.
  • Target District resources to combat low levels of educational attainment in the city. Emphasis should be placed on providing increased investments and resources to Wards 7 and 8. These wards have the greatest percentage of D.C.’s children, the lowest incomes and the least educational attainment. Through increased educational investments in these communities, D.C. can begin to close the educational attainment gap between wards and communities of color. These investments would provide youth the opportunity to avoid justice system involvement and engage city officials in creating communities focused on education and public safety.
  • Implement policies that keep youth in school. Use evidence-based strategies to address root causes of truancy, and review school policies and procedures to ensure students are not being suspended or expelled unnecessarily.
  • Invest in early educational programs. Continued investments in early childhood education can help to increase positive life outcomes for D.C.’s youth. Enacting policies and programs and allocating available resources to further increase the number of 3- and 4- year-olds enrolled in preschool and pre-kindergarten can increase overall levels of educational attainment, community investment and reduce justice system involvement.
  • Collect more and better data. Improving both educational and justice system data collection can help to further understand the impact and effectiveness of current programs and to better understand where further investment in resources is needed.


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