Role of school law enforcement in arrests and recidivism

Imagine, it’s your first day of school. You feel a mix of emotions, both excitement, and dismay. As soon as you enter school grounds, you are immediately confronted by an intimidating figure. You feel like your every move is being watched and one step out of line is a call for disciplinary action. For the students enrolled in schools with police referral and arrest programs, this is an everyday feeling. These harsh practices have led to a startling increase in student arrests and play a major role in the school-to-jail pipeline. The system that was originally set in place in order to maintain school safety has made students feel even more in danger, especially students of color. What is more devastating is most of these students are sent to prison long before a crime could ever be committed.


According to the U.S. Department of Education, “during the 2015–2016 academic year, U.S. schools referred more than 290,600 students to law enforcement, resulting in more than 52,000 arrests for school-related incidents.” Upon further investigation, black male students were disproportionately affected by the arrest programs. In May 2014, The Philadelphia Police Department initiated the Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program. The development of this program was focused on relieving the negative consequences (e.g., detainment and court proceedings to reduced prosocial activity and poor academic performance) of contact with the juvenile justice system.


In “Preventing School-Based Arrest and Recidivism Through Prearrest Diversion: Outcomes of the Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program,” Goldstein and colleagues (2021) evaluate archival data and enrollment data provided by the Philadelphia Police Department to determine whether prearrest diversion programs reduce recidivism of delinquent activity in youth. The information utilized was based on 2,302 public school students in the Philadelphia School District. The samples being assessed consisted of three categories- diverted students, students arrested one year before the program began, and a control group of students in the arrested group who would have been eligible for the program, had it been in place at the time of arrest.


The study performed by Goldstein and colleagues revealed promising results for the Diversion Program. Within 5 years of implementing the program, overall arrest rates dropped by 84%. In comparison to the arrested student sample, the diverted youth sample showed lower rates in repeated arrests. This includes a reduction in recidivism at 3-month time periods within a 2-year span and longer time to next arrest. Regardless of these favorable outcomes, researchers found that when matching demographic and incident-related factors, there is no longer a significant difference in the rates of repeated arrests.


Racial and ethnic disparity in the criminal justice system is a harsh reality that minorities deal with from the moment they are born. Many young African American and Hispanic men are unfairly subjected to the justice system every single day. Although, diversion programs have been implemented to keep youth out of the jail system. These programs do not target the troubling disparities we still find in our society today. Future research and improvement to Prearrest Diversion Programs is required to continue the efforts of dismantling the school-to-jail pipeline. No longer should these children have to live in fear of spending life behind bars.

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