"Cradle to Prison Pipeline" Why Should the Church Care?

Date Posted: 8/22/2011

According to the American Leadership Forum, one in three African-American and one in six Hispanic boys born in 2001 are at risk of becoming part of the prison population. This compares to one in 17 white children born at the same time.


Do those numbers shock you? As an African-American female, these numbers greatly affected me. They tell me that in 15 or so years, if I have three boys, I should resign myself to the fact that one of my babies is statistically destined to go to prison.


The figures are so bad for a number of reasons, which are collectively known as the “Cradle to Prison Pipeline.” Poverty, mental health issues and poor health care are among those reasons. One of the most overlooked and most important reasons behind these numbers is a lack of educational opportunities for poorer and minority communities.


Inescapable connection

The connection between inequitable education and the growing prison population is inescapable. For example, in Texas, my home state, 83% of African Americans and 79% of Hispanics in the fourth grade can’t read on grade level. Fifty-three percent of white children suffer similarly. As you can tell, these figures mirror the predicted incarceration rates from 2001.


The problem actually starts much earlier: in the classroom.

We generally think of the prison system and its costs as adult-centered. The problem actually starts much earlier: in the classroom.


In the United States, the story goes that if you work hard enough and get your education, you will achieve a reasonable amount of success. The problem is that getting an education part. It presents a bit of a problem if you live in a certain area or happen to be a certain race. Poorer and minority neighborhood schools consistently perform worse than their richer and majority white counterparts. Consequently, gaining access to that elusive American Dream is much harder for those racial minority communities.


Underground economy

When educational opportunities are low or nonexistent, other options or opportunities present themselves, often in the form of crime. Unfortunately, the underground economy is seen by some as the only way to keep your head above water. Often, people become a part of this underground economy at a young age. And so the cycle continues, which leaves generation after generation lost in a self-perpetuating downward spiral.


People become a part of this underground economy at a young age.

What does this mean for us as a church? The first thing we should remember is that our call for restorative justice extends to children and young people, as well. The United Methodist Social Principles call us to pay special attention to the needs of children. We have entire sections in the Social Principles and the Book of Resolutions dedicated to children and what we as a church should do: Which is, protect them and advocate on their behalf.


But do we do it? As the body of Christ we have a responsibility to make a case for this group who really doesn’t have a voice. We need to make sure that juvenile detention centers and prisons don’t become the schools for our children. By fighting for equitable education early in life, we can make sure the number of children entering that wretched system drops dramatically.


Jesus loved children

The Bible tells us how much Jesus loved children. In Mark 10, Jesus told his disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14 NIV). He then took the children in his arms and gave them a blessing.


Until Jesus returns, it is our responsibility to take the world’s children into our arms and bless them with an education, health care, and physical and spiritual nourishment to keep them out of this pipeline to prison. Will we answer the call to be like Jesus or will we continue to be like the disciples and rebuke those who bring their children to the arms of the church?


We must save the lives of the babies born on the margins of society whose lives have been determined by statistics before they can even take their first breath. They deserve the same chance more fortunate children had. The same chance that I had.


They are worth at least that much.


Brittany Levingston, 18, is from Houston, Texas. She is studying English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Her home congregation is Jones Memorial United Methodist Church in Houston. She participated in this summer’s Ethnic Young Adult internship program of the General Board of Church & Society. Her internship was with the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.


“Cradle to Prison” is a registered trademark of the Children’s Defense Fund, which provided statistics cited in this article… More information is available in the American Leadership Forum study “Dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline® in Houston and Texas.”