Cradle to Prison Pipeline® Campaign

Cradle to Prison Campaign

Nationally, 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime. While boys are five times as likely to be incarcerated as girls, there also is a significant number of girls in the juvenile justice system. This rate of incarceration is endangering children at younger and younger ages.

This is America's pipeline to prison — a trajectory that leads to marginalized lives, imprisonment and often premature death. Although the majority of fourth graders cannot read at grade level, states spend about three times as much money per prisoner as per public school pupil.

CDF's vision with its Cradle to Prison Pipeline campaign is to reduce detention and incarceration by increasing preventive supports and services children need, such as access to quality early childhood development and education services and accessible, comprehensive health and mental health coverage. Emphasis must be shifted for the sake of our children and our nation's future.

State Coalitions to Dismantle the Pipeline

State Coalitions to Dismantle the Pipeline

The Cradle to Prison Pipeline campaign launched during a national summit in September 2007 held at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Community leaders, government officials, educators, parents and young people responded by forming coalitions to keep children in school and out of trouble in their communities. Summits have convened in Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Ohio and Texas. During the meetings, participants formulate action plans and form working groups to promote best practices, build community and confront policies that are contributing to the crisis in their state.

On January 25th, 2011, the Massachusetts coalition reconvened to continue the work of addressing zero tolerance and school discipline policies that are funneling children into the state’s criminal justice system. Learn more about the goals and principles of the Massachusetts coalition and download the group’s action plan.

Listen to a radio interview with Barbara Best, CDF’s Director of Foundation Relations and Special Projects, about the Massachusetts Coalition’s work.

Black Leaders Address the Mass Incarceration of Youth

The Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC) is committed to dismantling the pipeline to prison through education and by expanding programs that work such as the CDF Freedom Schools® program and replicating the Harlem Children’s Zone model in other communities through the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative. During a meeting in December 2010, Black leaders gathered at CDF Haley Farm to discuss the problems Black youth face and promising approaches. Watch new videos from the convening where author Michelle Alexander addresses the devastating impact that the mass incarceration of Black men is having on communities and Judith Browne-Dianis of the Advancement Project discusses zero tolerance policies in schools.


 Michelle Alexander

Author: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

 Judith Browne-Dianis, Esq.

Co-Director, Advancement Project

Portrait of Inequality 2012
Portrait of Inequality

The economic crisis of the last three years has pushed Black children and youth deeper and deeper into an abyss of poverty, hunger, homelessness and despair. Black children and youth continue to face multiple risks from birth and throughout life that increase the danger of their becoming part of the Cradle to Prison Pipeline® crisis that leads to dead end lives. To highlight these harsh realities CDF produced the “Portrait of Inequality 2012”, a report showing the gross inequalities facing Black children compared to White children, across all critical indicators of wellbeing.

Click here to download the report.

Promising Approaches

As Congress considers re-authorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), CDF President Marian Wright Edelman looks at several promising approaches across the country that are changing the juvenile justice paradigm from punishment and incarceration as a first resort to prevention, early intervention and rehabilitation that put children onto a path to productive adulthood in her weekly Child Watch® Column.

  • 08/14/15
    Child Watch® Column: "The Unthinkable Lives of So Many Black Boys: Where Are the Caring Adults?!"
    What’s on the minds of many high school students these days—the start of a new school year, getting a driver’s license, worrying whether they’ll make the team, perhaps daydreaming about college and sweating over SAT exams? But that’s not what three Black male high school students told a Children’s Defense Fund audience this summer they’re thinking and worrying about.
  • 08/07/15
    Child Watch® Column: "Helping Black Boys Survive: What a Difference a Smile Makes"
    “If I tell you a smile could save a life, would you believe me? A smile can save a life. There was a gentleman, a young gentleman … named Kevin. Kevin was one of those children who did well in school and had great grades. People liked Kevin. Kevin was a handsome young man. But Kevin was a miserable young man. Kevin suffered from depression. Kevin decided that he was going to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and jump. … Kevin said, ‘If there’s one person who would smile at me or ask me if I was okay, I would not jump.’ Kevin jumped.”
  • 07/31/15
    Child Watch® Column: "Hanging on to Hope to Keep Black Men and Boys Alive"
    South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the world’s leading peace and justice advocates, has called Bryan Stevenson “America’s Nelson Mandela.” He has gotten innocent men off death row, successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court multiple times, including to ban “death sentences” — capital punishment and life imprisonment without parole for offenses committed by juveniles. In June this man of great moral clarity and brilliance spoke about “How to Keep Black Boys Alive” to 2,000 college-age Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® servant leaders at CDF-Haley Farm. He focused on how we can break up the Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ that feeds 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 into America’s morally indefensible and unjust mass incarceration system.
  • 04/03/15
    Child Watch® Column:
    "Let's Give Child Hunger a Summer Vacation"
    Many children and families eagerly look forward to the end of the school year and the carefree days of summer, playing outside in the warm sun, splashing and swimming in pools and at beaches, and gathering with family and friends for backyard barbeques. But for more than 17 million children the end of school can be the end of certainty about where and when their next meal will come. While 21.7 million children received free or reduced price lunches during the 2013-2014 school year, only 2.6 million children-12.2 percent-participated in the Summer Food Service Program. This huge participation gap suggests that nearly 9 out of 10 of the children who benefit from free or reduced price lunches during the school year may not be receiving the nourishment necessary for proper physical, cognitive, and social development during the long summer months. Hunger has no vacation.
  • 03/27/15
    Child Watch® Column:
    "Time for Justice for Children in New York"
    By Marian Wright Edelman and Melanie Hartzog
    Under New York’s juvenile justice system a child as young as seven can be arrested for a crime, and a 16-year-old is automatically charged as an adult.
  • 02/13/15
    Child Watch® Column: "Girls In Justice"
    I’m grateful for a powerful new book, Girls In Justice by artist Richard Ross, a follow up to his moving earlier Juvenile In Justice, which combines Ross’s photographs of girls in the juvenile justice system with interviews he gathered from over 250 detention facilities across the United States. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the deeply disturbing photographs speak volumes. Ross uses the power of photography to make visible the hidden and harsh world of girls in detention. These heartwrenching images coupled with the girls’ ages and life stories should move us to confront the cruel and unjust juvenile justice system in our nation. These girls are ours: our neighbors, our children’s classmates, our daughters and granddaughters, sisters, cousins, and nieces — and, for some young children, our mothers. Girls In Justice begs the questions—why are so many girls, especially girls of color, confined in our nation’s detention facilities, and what are we as a society going to do about it?
  • 05/04/12
    Child Watch® Column: "Poison in America"
    The growth in hate groups and the use of their divisive and negative language in the mainstream political and media arena is cause for national alarm. Already this year several horrendous hate crimes, possible hate crimes, and crimes committed by people with ties to hate groups have received national attention.
  • 07/15/11
    Child Watch® Column: "The State of America's Children"
    The Children's Defense Fund has just released a new report, The State of America's Children 2011, which paints a disturbing portrait of child needs across our country. With rampant unemployment, housing foreclosures, homelessness, hunger, and massive looming federal and state budget cuts, children's well-being is in great jeopardy. One in five children is poor and children are our nation's poorest age group.
  • 04/29/11
    Child Watch® Column: "Judge Patricia Martin: Family Matters"
    The Honorable Patricia Martin, who serves as the Presiding Judge of the Child Protection Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, is the president-elect of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. In this key role she is devoted to helping change children's lives. She previously chaired the Supreme Court of Illinois Judicial Conference Study Committee on Juvenile Justice, and spent a decade as an assistant Cook County Public Defender.
  • 12/10/10
    Child Watch® Column: "Strength to Love: A Challenge to the Privatized Prison Industry"
    A few months ago a group of earnest and determined stockholders traveled together by bus from Washington, D.C. to Nashville, Tennessee to attend a shareholders' meeting. On the surface, it sounded like a fairly ordinary trip, but this was an unusual group on an extraordinary mission.
Key Immediate Action Steps

Tens of thousands of youth are being funneled down life paths that often lead to arrest, conviction, incarceration and even death. The urgent challenge for each of us and for our nation is to prevent this waste of our children's lives and our nation's capabilities. Here are ways that individuals, families, communities, organizations and elected officials can help end the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.


  • Mentor a child.
  • Volunteer at an after-school program for youth.
  • Vote in every election and advocate for children.
  • Educate elected officials about the Pipeline.
  • Host a house party to educate others about the Pipeline and what they can do to dismantle it.
  • Volunteer with children who are homeless or in foster care.
  • Organize a forum on incarcerated youth and the funding disparities between prisons and education in our nation.
  • Volunteer your talents or professional services to help a single-parent, kinship care or foster care family by babysitting, inviting them to events with their children, or providing transportation.
  • Invite youth to events at the next educational level (i.e., taking a high school student to a college basketball game).


  • Spend quality time with your family (i.e., family game night, eating meals together).
  • Join the PTA, a parent support group, or other school group.
  • Attend school activities and/or volunteer in the  classroom.
  • Consistently praise your child’s achievements in school and extracurricular activities.
  • Establish and maintain a supportive home learning environment.
  • Create daily homework routines and limit television viewing.
  • Offer tutoring and homework help to your children or younger siblings.
  • Offer to run errands or help around the house.
  • Communicate with and listen to your child.
  • Talk and actively listen to children within your extended family.
  • Show affection, love and respect to your child every day.
  • Do something fun with your child or sibling.
  • Adopt a foster child or become a foster parent.


  • Institute a "Cradle Roll" within your faithbased institution or community, linking every child to a permanent, caring family member or adult mentor who can keep them on track and get them back on track if and when they stray.
  • Promote learning by starting an after-school program for children.
  • Ensure that at least one caring community member attends every public school student suspension meeting or court hearing.
  • Encourage families to spend quality time together by hosting a movie or game night at your church.
  • Start a support group for single-parent or kinship care families.
  • Provide job opportunities and guidance for families and youth in need.
  • Create college scholarships for children from disadvantaged, foster care and kinship care families.
  • Work with school officials to develop and adopt more child-appropriate discipline policies and procedures.
  • Reach out to youth who are homeless or in foster care.
  • Prepare care packages of new clothes, personal toiletries and/or a welcome gift for children placed
    into foster care homes.
  • Hold events to celebrate the strengths of our children and provide college scholarships and
    leadership opportunities to youth.
  • Start a halfway house and counseling program for youth who have run away.
  • Create a summer job opportunity for a youth.
  • Create and distribute a community resource manual so that parents know where to turn for help for their families.


  • Invest in prevention and early intervention.
  • Host a health fair to ensure all children who are eligible for Medicaid or your State Children’s Health Insurance Program are enrolled.
  • Provide free tax filing assistance to low-income working families.
  • Educate families about how they can apply for Food Stamps, Head Start, federal nutrition programs and other similar benefits.
  • Create and distribute a calendar of free family-friendly community events.
  • Start a parent education program to familiarize parents about conflict resolution in the home and how to advocate for their children.
  • Encourage alternatives to incarceration such as restitution, community service, electronic monitoring, drug rehabilitation treatment or placement in a “staff secure” (but not locked) community corrections facility.
  • Work to ensure that counseling, social services, education, and health and mental health services are provided to at-risk youth.
  • Fund reinvestment in urban communities, such as parks, schools and roads.
  • Write annual child and gun violence reports to track the killing of children and call for effective gun control measures and nonviolent conflict resolution training.
  • Host a Cradle to Prison Pipeline Summit to connect and educate others about the Pipeline and ways to dismantle it.

Government Agencies

  • Bring other elected officials and leaders together to gain first-hand awareness of the status of your local children; demonstrate what is working and what is not.
  • Ensure children in foster care and detention receive quality treatment to address their mental, behavioral and emotional needs.
  • Promote high quality children’s television programming and access to other quality electronic media.
  • Provide high quality early childhood development programs for all.
  • Ensure all children and pregnant women access to affordable, seamless, comprehensive health coverage and services.
  • Establish policies that emphasize prevention and rehabilitation to keep children out of or rescue them from the Pipeline.
  • Expand "second chance" programs for high school dropouts, ex-offenders and at-risk youth to secure GEDs, job training and employment.
  • Reduce repeat offender rates by focusing on treatment- and family-oriented approaches.
  • Make sure every child can read at grade level by 4th grade and graduate from high school able to succeed in post-secondary education and/or work.
  • Organize state and local leadership councils or committees to create strategic plans to address the learning and developmental needs of children.
  • Invest money in community-based rehabilitation centers and treatment programs to serve as an alternative to juvenile detention and prison.
  • Stop the criminalization of children at increasingly younger ages.
  • Create partnerships with local businesses, schools and/or churches to create quality exit programs for those leaving the juvenile justice system as a way to start them on the "Pipeline to Success."
Learn More about the Pipeline in Your State

Access state-level data on the various issues related to the Pipeline including poverty, health care, early childhood development, education, child welfare, juvenile justice, and community violence with CDF's Children in the States factsheets.

Raise the Age NY

Currently, New York is one of only two states to treat youth automatically as adults at age 16.  As a result thousands of adolescents are processed in the adult criminal justice system, subject to adult jails and prisons, and saddled with criminal records that impact the rest of their lives.  Treating young people in the adult criminal justice system increases their likelihood of being abused, and increases the likelihood that they will return to the criminal justice system in the future.  We need to Raise the Age to ensure that the legal process responds to children in age-appropriate ways. It is our duty to ensure that young people are offered interventions and services that will help them become successful adults.

As part of the Raise the Age – New York Campaign, The Children's Defense Fund-New York (CDF-NY) has fought tirelessly in support of raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York.  We applaud Governor Cuomo for his leadership and support of reforming the justice system to improve the treatment of youth and public safety.  We were also honored to serve on his Commission for Youth, Safety and Justice alongside colleagues with a diverse set of expertise and experience in law enforcement, juvenile justice, and government, to develop the recommendations that were ultimately translated into the Governor’s 2015 Executive Budget legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

Learn more about CDF-NY's efforts.

Youth in the Juvenile Justice System are Underserved in Los Angeles County

On December 2nd, Marian Wright Edelman joined with Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to discuss the state of the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles County and release the report, “Juvenile Reentry in Los Angeles County: An Exploration of the Strengths, Barriers and Policy Options.” The reentry report found that most juveniles who are released from long-term secure placement in the county are not successfully reintegrating into their communities. These youth require services and supports that meaningfully engage them in school, employment, and community life if they are to successfully exit the Cradle to Prison Pipeline and enter the pipeline to college and work. The report on juvenile reentry was prepared for Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ office earlier this year by Michelle Newell and Angelica Salazar, former masters candidates at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who now both work at the Children’s Defense Fund on juvenile justice policy.

Read the entire set of findings and policy recommendations in the full report edited for the Web.

Innovative Solutions to Dismantling the Pipeline in Texas

The American Leadership Forum Houston/Gulf Coast Chapter has produced a report, Dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline in Houston and Texas: A Study of Solutions, that documents promising approaches that are effectively shutting down the pipeline by focusing on prevention and early intervention. These programs create a more positive future for young people and save taxpayers by avoiding the costs of incarceration. The report and accompanying PowerPoint presentation can be found on the American Leadership Forum’s website.