The Nature, Causes, and Consequences of Student Deselection and Criminalization


By Katherine Irwin and James Roumasset1

A central principle of public economics is that the government should correct market failures. For example, when a firm’s pollution imposes social cost on society—an externality—the market fails to provide an efficient allocation of resources. The externality can be corrected by forcing the firm to pay for the cost of pollution (e.g. via a Pigouvian tax), thereby internalizing what was previously an external cost.

The same philosophy can be applied to government agencies and institutions. If an agency’s actions impose external costs on society, the inefficiency can be corrected by policy reforms that cause the agency to internalize said costs.

A case in point regards school pushout or exclusion policies in public education, including punishments like suspension, expulsion, and arrest (see Morris 2016). Such deselection may have the unintended consequences of imposing costs on the criminal justice system and elsewhere in society.

Large-scale deselection in schools is commonly linked to the punitive turn in combatting street crime in the U.S. Following a national “tough on crime” movement in the 1980s, public schools have increasingly relied on exclusionary punishments such as suspension, expulsion, and arrest of students (Hirschfield 2008; Kupchik 2010; Simon 2007). While such practices were originally implemented in the name of enhancing school safety (per the 1994 Safe and Drug Free Schools Act), the result of these measures is that students are often arrested, suspended, or expelled from schools for juvenile status (non-tort) offenses (esp. truancy, running away, drinking, violating curfew, and incor­ri­gi­bil­i­ty or acting out) as well as torts such as assault. School deselection has far-reaching consequences. Research consistently finds that punitive exclusions, especially arrest, have lasting negative outcomes for young people, such as poor academic performance, school dropout, increased engagement in delinquency, and future involvement in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems (Bernburg et al. 2003; Hirschfield 2009; Hjalmarsson 2008; Kirk and Sampson 2013; Lopes et al. 2012; Sweeten, 2006; Wiley et al. 2013). The ACLU (Whitaker et al. 2019) noted that harsh punishments can undermine a positive school climate by making students feel “policed” in hallways and classrooms and eroding their overall sense of belonging within schools. Also of concern is that punished students might be funneled into juvenile or adult criminal justice systems despite evidence that punitive responses to such behaviors are less effective than community-based counseling and therapy programs (e.g., Latessa et al. 2013 and The Ann E. Casey Foundation 2011). For example, when students misbehave because of complicated circumstances (e.g., housing and food insecurities, family upheavals, and exposure to traumatic events), punishment may compound the strains in students’ lives (Agnew 1992), thus amplifying delinquent behavior.

While some students survive the punitive approach, there is a risk, especially when young people face multiple contingencies at home, that those deselected from school may seek comfort in the streets and enter what some call the “schools-to-jails” track that may be especially prevalent in in Hawaii’s public schools. Students who “act out,” (e.g., by striking or threatening another student) are likely to be suspended from school. Some are also arrested. In the former case, given a complicated home life resulting in students turning to the streets, they may be ultimately arrested. That is, “problem” students tend to be directly or indirectly funneled into the criminal justice system, likely resulting in a well-known spiral of crime and incarceration (e.g., Perry 2021).

Criminalization of student misbehavior appears to be greater in Hawaii than in other states. Relying on the police to manage students’ disobedience is a common practice in Hawaii. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in the 2013-14 school year, Hawaii referred 10% its student body to law enforcement, making Hawaii the number one state in the nation to engage in this practice. While the rate of referring students to the police dropped in the 2015-16 school year, that same year Hawaii ranked number one in terms of arresting students on school grounds.2 The inequities underscoring arrest trends in Hawaii’s schools has been previously documented (Bird et al. 2021). Here we focus on its inefficiency, in the sense that benefits (if any) are likely to be much less than costs.

The term “government failure” usually refers to policies that interfere with the efficient functioning of markets, tax policies with greater tax friction (excess burden) than necessary, and government expenditures with benefits less than costs. Here we broaden the category to actions by government agencies or institutions that lower overall government effectiveness. In the present context, this happens when one arm of government (schools) makes another arm (criminal justice) more costly and/or less effective.

The causes of strict deselection policies are understandable from the point of view of schools. Lacking adequate resources (e.g., teacher time, counseling staff, and other assets), it is easier to export students that are more likely to lower a school’s reputation for security or compromise the school’s academic performance records. But doing so comes at great costs. According to the National Institute of Corrections (2020), the average price of incarcerating one adult in Hawaii for one year is $71,011.3 The price of confinement of one juvenile for one year is even higher, approximately $206,768 in Hawaii (Justice Policy Institute, 2020). These official figures overlook a host of other hidden and collateral expenses associated with justice system contact (Lockwood and Lewis, 2019; Wagner and Rabuy, 2017). Important to consider is the compounding price of justice system contact over a students’ lifetime given that school deselection may alienate a person from legal employment opportunities and engagement in conventional society. The costs of crime to victims (although difficult to monetize) may be even greater, thus the figures quoted here are only suggestive. More research focused on quantifying the overall costs of crime and school deselection are needed.

As shown in Figure 1, the cost of crime is far greater than the costs of incarceration alone. Firstly, enforcement costs include enforcement efforts, such as policing and court processing, as well as the cost of confinement (juvenile detention, juvenile correction, jail, state prison, and federal prison). As illustrated, the cost to victims and perpetrators may be even greater than the combined costs of enforcement. Figure 1 illustrates optimal enforcement. But if the composition of policing, court, and confinement costs or the levels of total enforcement and costs to victims and perpetrators are not optimal, the total costs of crime will be greater still.4

Efficiency, therefore, can be improved by requiring schools to take greater responsibility for deselecting students. If schools pay for the external cost that deselection imposes on society, they will be incentivized to seek other solutions. This “deselection tax” can be combined with greater resources available for counseling and other programs that, first, maintain students’ connections to schools and, second, have been proven effective in addressing student misbehaviors.5


Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology 30(1), 47-87.

Bernburg, J. G. & Krohn, M. D. (2003). Labeling, life chances, and adult crime: The direct and indirect effects of official intervention in adolescence on crime in early adulthood. Criminology 41(4), 1287-318.

Bird, O., N. Kohl, N. Rita, N. Sharma, & Shih R. (2021). Discriminatory policing in Hawaii’s schools: Reliance on police in Hawaii’s schools is excessive, discriminatory, and violates national juvenile justice policies. (See also Suevon L., University of Hawaii report finds “Discriminatory Policing” in Honolulu schools.)

Hirschfield, P. J. (2008). Preparing for prison? The criminalization of school discipline in the USA. Theoretical Criminology 12(1), 79-101.

Hirschfield, P. J. (2009). Another way out: The impact of juvenile arrest on high school dropout. Sociology of Education 82, 368-393.

Hjalmarsson, R. (2008). Criminal justice involvement and high school completion. Journal of Urban Economics 63(2), 613–30.

Justice Policy Institute. (2020). Sticker shock 2020: The cost of youth incarceration. Washington D.C.

Kirk, D. S., & Sampson, R. J. (2013). Juvenile arrest and collateral educational damage in the transition to adulthood. Sociology of Education 86(1), 36–62.

Kupchik, A. (2010). Homeroom security: School discipline in an age of fear. New York: New York University Press.

Latessa, E., P. Smith, & Schweitzer, M. (2013). Evaluation of the effective practices in community supervision model.

Lockwood, B. & Lewis, N. (2019). The hidden cost of incarceration. The Marshal Project.

Lopes, G., Krohn, M. D., Lizotte, A. J., Schmidt, N. M., Vasquez, B. E., & Bernburg, J. G. (2012). Labeling and cumulative disadvantage: The impact of formal police intervention on life chances and crime during emerging adulthood. Crime and Delinquency 58(3), 456-488.

Morris, M. W. (2016). Pushout: The criminalization of black girls in schools. New York: The New Press.

National Institute of Corrections (2020). Hawaii 2020: The prison system and the jail system.

Perry, G. (2012). The next criminal justice reforms: Escaping the downward spiral.

Polinsky, A. M., & Shavell, S. (2007). The theory of public enforcement of law. In Handbook of Law and Economics, vol. 1, edited by A. M. Polinsky and S. Shavell, 403–54. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Shavell, S. (1991). Specific versus general enforcement of law. Journal of Political Economy 99 (5): 1088–108.

Simon, J. (2007). Governing crime: How the war on crime transformed American democracy and created a culture of fear. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sweeten, G. (2006). Who will graduate? Disruption of high school education by arrest and court involvement. Justice Quarterly 23(4), 462–80.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation. 2011. No Place for Kids: The case for reducing juvenile Incarceration.

Wagner, P. & Rabuy, B. (2017). Following the money of mass incarceration. Prison Policy Initiative.

Wiley, S. A., Slocum, L. A., & Esbensen, F. A. (2013). The unintended consequences of being stopped or arrested: An exploration of the labeling mechanisms through which police contact leads to subsequent delinquency. Criminology 51(4), 927-966.

Whitaker et al. (2019). Cops and no counselors: How the lack of school mental health staff is harming students. American Civil Liberties Union.


1 The authors are, respectively, Professor of Sociology and Emeritus Professor of Economics, both at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Thanks to Kimberly Burnett for the art work.

2 There are two types of data regarding school arrests. Referring students to the police is a decision made by school personnel. Arresting students reflects police decisions.

3 This number excludes jail costs.

4 See e.g. Shavell (1991) and Polinski and Shavell (2007) for a more elaborate theory of optimal enforcement.

5 See the best-practices models identified by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, The MacArthur Foundation, and the Vera Institute of Justice.

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