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Bars and Barriers: How Can We Fix the Educational System in Juvenile Facilities?

October 14, 2014

Alisha Jarwala

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On June 9, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)  released a memo on new efforts to provide educational support for incarcerated youth through improving facilities and curriculum. The memo concludes, “[e]ducational and juvenile justice agencies must […] ensure that youth […] receive the services they need to meet their educational goals, obtain employment, and avoid recidivism.”

Currently, this is wishful thinking. In April 2014, the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) found that the current state of education in juvenile facilities is characterized by “low expectations, inadequate supports to address student needs, and ineffective instruction.” The SEF Report states that in 2010, approximately 70,000 children were in custody of the juvenile justice system on any given day. Two-thirds of them were there for offenses that did not involve another person. This is a high-needs population that currently receives little to no support.


1. School quality is poor.
Programs often do not meet state standards and curriculum is outdated and unengaging. Students in short-term facilities often receive no educational services at all, or spend far less time in the classroom than in public school.  “Students come out of the juvenile justice system in worse shape than when they entered,” Steve Suitts, SEF Vice President, told The Huffington Post.  SEF found that as many as two thirds of the students who go through the juvenile justice system eventually drop out of school.

Screen shot from "Just Learning." Data source: Consolidated State Performance Report, US Department of Education.

2. The juvenile justice system primarily serves high needs students without adequate support to do so.
In a 2008 publication, the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) noted that youth in juvenile facilities have a high level of school failure – 75% have failed one or more courses. Students with disabilities are over-represented in juvenile facilities (over 33% qualify for special education and related services). Students are disproportionately from impoverished communities and underperforming schools.

3. The juvenile justice system has a disparate impact on minority students.
The overwhelming majority of youth in the juvenile justice system are minorities – the SEF report notes that according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 68 percent of all children taken in custody in 2010 were of color. In 2007, 75 percent of children in custody were minorities in ten states.

4. The system is hampered by bureaucracy.
Students in juvenile facilities face many bureaucratic barriers, including a lack of integrated services, missing records, and delays in transferring records and credits. Ideally, liaisons should work with child welfare, education, mental health, and juvenile justice systems to ensure that gaps in services are addressed and that services provided align and do not overlap.

5. Adequate support is not provided for reentry.
In part, this is due to the bureaucratic problems discussed above – when students attempt to reenroll in the public school system, the process is hampered by a lack of coordination between state agencies. Other problems include schools attempting to transfer students to alternative schools or refusing to accept credit transfers.[1]


1. Start collecting data.
Currently, state governments rarely monitor the quality of programs in their facilities, and national-level information does not adequately track student progress or outcomes, making it difficult to identify exactly where gaps are and the best practices that could serve as solutions.

2. Change the teachers, change the teaching.
The June 9, 2014 ED/DOJ memo emphasized recruiting qualified personnel and a rigorous curriculum. In order to get the kind of human capital these facilities need, they need to pay salaries that are competitive – this is not always the case, especially if the education programs in the facilities aren’t run by local school districts.[2]

In addition, short, irregular periods of stay cause a problem in offering consistent educational services. One possible solution to this is creating project-based, modular curriculum with units that allow easy progress tracking. For example, the Pathfinders program used in Nebraska’s juvenile facilities bases curriculum on short, thematic units of study created by teachers, which allow students to participate regardless of what time they arrive during the school year.

Screen shot from "Just Learning." Data source: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)

3. Involve families.
Some strategies to enhance parent involvement include having an orientation for parents, helping to provide transportation, lighten visiting requirements, and taking steps to keep families up-to-date and informed on their student’s progress.

4. Make education a priority.
“If you were to talk to any juvenile justice commissioner or agency head, they would talk about education – but not say that’s a primary function,” Suitts told The Huffington Post. “There’s so much money spent on confinement, but so little on getting these kids effectively educated.” The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice has found that higher levels of literacy and academic performance are correlated with lower rates of juvenile recidivism. Other studies have noted that juveniles who leave facilities with above-average academic achievement are more likely to finish their education.[3]

The June 9, 2014 ED/DOJ memo is a step in the right direction. It hopes to provide some necessary guidance for reforming a system that, unfortunately, is failing to provide a vulnerable population with the educational tools needed to succeed. However, unless the structural problems in bureaucracy and curriculum are resolved, it will not be possible to create lasting change.  

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