Losing Generation after Generation: Mass Incarceration Is the Tip of the Iceberg

By Peter Edelman, Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Social Policy, Georgetown Law Center

Mass incarceration is finally beginning to attract some serious pushback, as it should. Yet even more robust efforts toward de-carceration would still be modest compared to the frame in which incarceration is nested, because the scope of the youth employment gap is far larger than the numbers of those incarcerated. The 600,000 people released annually from prison or jail, only a portion of whom are young, are dwarfed by the 5.5 million people aged 16 to 24 who are neither in school nor working. For every young person in the pipeline to prison, many more are trapped in a pipeline to nowhere.

The dirty little secret is that the American labor market lacks good jobs (for that matter it lacks jobs, period) for all who seek work or would seek work if it was available. Given this gap, the market rations the jobs that do exist: no more work for many people in their fifties, fewer jobs for people of color, and shutting out new entrants altogether at what would otherwise be the beginning of their careers. The job preparation process is so deeply flawed that the supply of qualified young people, especially young people of color, is diminished, thereby easing the competition for the jobs that do exist.

This is a problem that has existed for more than 40 years, and has steadily worsened over time. The number of young people not in school or working has more than doubled since the late 1970s. Yet we seem unable to confront the problem honestly, let alone develop feasible solutions.

The problem is not just one of flawed methods of education and training, although remediating that problem is certainly crucial. It is also the lack of availability of jobs – good jobs or at least jobs with incomes supplemented with public funds.

On the supply side, we need to begin a national debate acknowledging the shortage of jobs that produce an adequate income. We need to invest in our unmet national needs – not just in infrastructure (the buzzword of politicians of all parties), but also in caregiving, building housing, clean energy, and more. And we must insist that the holders of these jobs include people who have low incomes, especially young people, in fair measures.

At the same time, starting now, we have to fix the very broken non-system currently in place for preparing young people for jobs of the 21st century. This means devising and implementing pathways to careers that require only one or two years post-high school training in addition to careers requiring a bachelors’ degree or higher. It means providing opportunities for young people to secure relevant work experience, preferably paid, as part of the educational process. It means ensuring that schools are staffed with teachers who are trained and supported to teach all students reading, mathematics, and other basic skills that serve as a foundation for future training and preparation. It means involving employers, business leaders and labor unions in the design and implementation of the curricula, with an explicit goal of employment at the end of the process.

Many schools in the suburbs around the country already do just what I describe. Too few in inner cities do this. Even though we have better than 2,000 career academies around the country – a model that has been rigorously evaluated – somehow schools with young people of color lack such programs. The pipeline from school to prison and the pipeline from school to nowhere did not come about solely because of zero tolerance policies or the expanding juvenile and criminal justice system. Nor can we exclusively blame the weakness of basic academic content. The lack of sophisticated career and technical education programs for youths of color living in urban areas is as much at fault as these other factors.

Disadvantaged youth have to stay in school if they have any hope for a promising future. This means that they need reasons to stay in school, and that, in turn, means we need to create more robust pathways to careers and technical education as well as to the liberal arts. The best way to prevent youths from either falling into crime or falling off the map altogether is to offer them opportunities to develop skills that lead to jobs. If we can do that, we may find that much of the rest will take care of itself.