Report: Juvenile justice system schools “do more harm than good”

The education provided to the 70,000 juveniles incarcerated on any given day across the nation is “substandard” and “is setting them even further back in their ability to turn their lives around,” according to a report released today by the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit based in Atlanta.

The report – Just Learning: The Imperative to Transform Juvenile Justice Systems into Effective Educational Systems – found that the effects of the juvenile justice programs are “profound and crippling,” setting youth back instead of helping them.

Many of these students have learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral problems, and health issues, the report found. Overall, 30 percent reported they had been physically or sexually abused, 37 percent had problems with hearing, sight or teeth, and 20 percent “wished they were dead,” according to the report.

In addition, most (63 percent) were incarcerated for offenses that did not involve harming another person, such as burglary, shoplifting, trespassing, truancy, running away from home, auto theft, and underage drinking and smoking.

“We conducted this study to get a clear look at what happens to a truly invisible population,” said Steve Suitts, vice president of the foundation and co-author of the study with Nasheed Sabree, in a press release. “The juvenile justice education programs that serve hundreds of thousands of students are characterized by low expectations, inadequate supports to address student needs, and ineffective instruction and technology. Students come out of the juvenile justice system in worse shape than when they entered, struggling to return to school or get their lives back on track.”

The vast majority of students in juvenile justice facilities are male and African-American or Latino. California, Hawaii and New Jersey had the highest rates of children of color (which includes African-American, Latino, Asian, and Native American) incarcerated, according to the report, which relied on national data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

In California, 58 percent of incarcerated students were Latino, 26 percent African-American, 13 percent white and 3 percent Asian. These data are similar to state and national suspension and expulsion data, with African-American youth in particular being over-represented. In California, only about 6 percent of the student population is African-American.

California high school students in juvenile facilities were more likely than youths nationwide to earn course credits. In 2011, 58 percent of students earned high school credit in California compared with 46 percent nationally. However, they were less likely to receive a high school diploma while incarcerated. In 2011, 5 percent of California students were able to earn a high school diploma while locked up, compared with 8 percent nationally.

The report references an earlier study of young men in the California juvenile justice system. That study found that “finishing high school served as a turning point in offenders’ lives,” especially for those youth arrested as teenagers.

Based on its findings, the Southern Education Foundation report released today recommends:

  • Reorganizing programs so they are designed and operated to advance teaching and learning.
  • Setting and applying the same educational standards for incarcerated students as students in regular schools.
  • Tracking the educational status of every juvenile in the system.
  • Developing and implementing an individual educational plan for each student.
  • Providing a seamless transition back to a regular school.
  • Creating data systems to measure institutional educational progress and identify areas that need improvement.



Filed under: College Readiness, High-Needs Students


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29 Responses to “Report: Juvenile justice system schools “do more harm than good””

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  1. Don on Nov 13, 2014 at 10:16 am11/13/2014 10:16 am

    • 000

    And why has Ed Source totally ignored the failed and massive School Improvement Grant program?


    • navigio on Nov 13, 2014 at 11:24 am11/13/2014 11:24 am

      • 000

      I think it’s impossible to talk about SIG in a meaningful way. Firstly, the schools involved have so many variables and hurdles that there is bound to extreme variation (there were huge performance drops in some schools and not at others, how can you attribute those differences solely to similar ‘transformations’?).
      I also think there are no ‘transformations’ that are not destructive. This means you are starting off by making things worse.
      Finally, these ‘transformations’ assume something about the school structure or personnel is broken. If the problems really are elsewhere, or if the changes can’t actually do anything different given the systemic limitations that also burdened the structure being replaced, it seems clear not only would you not see improvements but might even expect declines.

  2. Don on Nov 13, 2014 at 10:10 am11/13/2014 10:10 am

    • 000

    If you can put reasonable amount of resources into compensatory education and get reasonable results, that makes sense. But the $5.5B SIG program pretty much ended the discussion on the value of concentrating massive resources into such efforts.


    “I’ve belabored the fiasco that is SIG, so I won’t pile on today. I just hope someone, someone, in the Department is saying, “If we find ourselves continually dumping bad SIG news, shouldn’t we just admit we messed up and ask Congress to end this program?”

    Here’s what you need to know.

    • When the program launched, we were told that this now-$6 billion program would produce “dramatic” improvements in our most troubled schools. The Secretary talked of “transformation not tinkering.”
    • The most persistently low-performing schools in American got several million dollars, on average, and yet a third of them got worse.
    • On average, schools with two years of funding and interventions under their belts saw a three percentage point gain in reading proficiency—just about the same gain as all other U.S. schools—those that didn’t get these huge cash infusions. (Today’s corrected data is worse than the initial release—gains here went down from five points to three points.)
    • On average, schools with one year of funding and interventions under their belts saw a two percentage-point gain in reading proficiency—just about the same gain as all other U.S. schools that didn’t get these huge cash infusions.

    Andy Smarick

    I did an evaluation in SFUSD comparing the last year going into SIG with the final year. The results are pretty much i in line with the results nationwide. Shouldn’t we learn something from this folly or should we stick our head in the sand and pretend we can throw money at a problem to make it go away?

    Navigio, have you looked at the LAUSD SIG recipient schools? I’d be curious to know if they fared any better.

  3. Carolyn Christensen on Nov 12, 2014 at 11:37 am11/12/2014 11:37 am

    • 000

    I teach kids on probation – mostly boys, ages 17 and 18. They are supposed to be in a GED program, but most come into my class in such desperate need of basic remediation, that the GED (realistically) is barely a blip on their ‘realm of possibility’. Saying they’re in a GED program sounds lofty, a placebo, like the system is working… but for these kids, the reality is a learning abyss. There are so many broken pieces (family relationships, physical and mental health, food, nurturing, social values, how to connect, repair, circumvent? The extent of their learning gaps is astounding, and yes, I’m frightened – for them. It keeps me up at night. Are there model programs somewhere, I can research ?

    Bring your middle class values to a class room of kids on probation and prepare for your sensibilities to be fractured – there is no normal, like floating in outter space, no gravity. These kids do not lack the capacity to learn, they have ability, I see it daily! They have fallen through every purported educational safety net, from Pre K forward. We lost them at Pre K! Most days I am up, I love what I do. Today my sense of hope is a bit battered. If there is a model program out there… a place where there are real results, will someone please point me in that direction? Thanks.

    PS One of my 18 year olds, just confided he can’t tell time on a regular clock. I tell him calmly … not to worry, tomorrow wel’ll tackle that problem, and you’ll be able to check that off your list of ‘things to learn’. And tomorrow …we will.


    • navigio on Nov 12, 2014 at 3:49 pm11/12/2014 3:49 pm

      • 000

      Hi Carolyn. Thank you for what you do.

      Below is a link to a story about a model used in one system in the southland that might be relevant for you. It essentially seems to focus on providing a family like approach, including supporting the student in virtually every manner possible (sounds like what you do anyway) as well as providing welcoming and relevant facilities and mentors. They have satellite campuses for specific needs/circumstances and that is done in conjunction with homeboy industries (ie it is a broader program than just the school mentioned in this story).

      • Don on Nov 13, 2014 at 9:17 am11/13/2014 9:17 am

        • 000

        Again, what’s implied here is that poverty is the excuse for the achievement gap. And for those that want it to be, poverty IS their excuse as well as the excuse used by the unions and the education establishment that sees no further than a statistical correlation. So why is it that poor students from families that value learning go on to be good students and make successes of themselves rather than dying like dogs in the street and dragging down the entire education system with them? It seems like we spend a majority of our time focusing on the 5-10% rather than the 90-95%. You can look no further than comments like Paul’s when he talks about investing in educational failure – “Any investment for this purpose is justified.” So any amount of pain for those that actually do apply themselves to their studies is justified. This is LCFF and this is the reason why public education is in deep trouble.

        • navigio on Nov 13, 2014 at 9:55 am11/13/2014 9:55 am

          • 000

          Or put another way: life is not fair, deal with it.

          • TheMorrigan on Nov 13, 2014 at 11:41 am11/13/2014 11:41 am

            • 000

            Or put another way: It is just the eternal return of Floyd’s argument again.

          • Don on Nov 13, 2014 at 12:56 pm11/13/2014 12:56 pm

            • 000

            First of all, Floyd’s conclusion is an informal fallacy because it stems from an incorrect premise that if student A works harder than student B, student A will outscore student B for having done so. The assumption is that student A and B are alike except for the amount of schoolwork output. In truth, students who are the focus of this article come damaged usually from birth or shortly thereafter due to mostly environmental causes and they cannot produce in the same fashion as others who may have similar economic circumstances but dissimilar and more positive sociological ones. Let’s call this an Informal Floydian Fallacy.

            Secondly, I should have made my assertion clearer. I was responding strictly to the implied notion that poverty is the operational factor when the real causes of underachievement in certain minority populations is more refined – a sociological rather than simply economic distinction based upon the understanding that socio-economic status (SES) is a misnomer in that sociological and economic statuses are not mutually inclusive.

          • FloydThursby1941 on Nov 13, 2014 at 3:05 pm11/13/2014 3:05 pm

            • 000

            Work is one factor. If any child works harder, that individual will do better. If their parents spend more time with them, they will do better. Asians prove this, they are no more equipped naturally, but they achieve more due to culture, priorities, and focus. There are other groups who do the same. You need confidence, insecurity (demanding achievements for self-esteem, not giving a trophy to everyone automatically), and dedication. It’s like sports, most of us couldn’t have won against Michael Jordan in basketball even if he were lazy, but if he were lazy, he might have made the NBA and been a mediocre reserve, or only college. Genetics is a factor, parenting is a factor, but work is also a factor.

            As a whole, if we get all California parents to prepare their kids for Kindergarten (or 60%) and the average California kid studies 13.8 hours a week from age 10 (the Asian average,well over 5.6 for whites) we would have virtually no poverty or social problems in this state. All of our problems come down to education.

    • Don on Nov 12, 2014 at 6:09 pm11/12/2014 6:09 pm

      • 000


      When you say,” They have fallen through every purported educational safety net, from Pre K forward”,
      are you suggesting that safety nets are worthless or that we don’t have enough? Where does the individual bear any responsibility in his or her education or are you suggesting that it is entirely the role of the state to insure that every child succeeds? And how much should we spend on the ones that don’t before it drastically undermines those students who don’t need the service but whose base grant funding diminishes as the services to others goes up. Aren’t these millions of students also entitled to equal opportunity?

      What about the $5.5B Federal School Improvement Grant program that spent double and triple per pupil and failed to achieve even modest overall output for all the inputs. Any lesson to be learned there?

      • FloydThursby1941 on Nov 12, 2014 at 8:19 pm11/12/2014 8:19 pm

        • 000

        How can a child succeed when he or she is sitting next to kids studying 20-25 hours a week from a young age with parents who prepare them for Kindergarten if he or she just watches TV and expects others to make it happen? Kids have to help themselves some. When you name schools where kids are failing, some are succeeding. Parenting is a huge factor. Kids’ effort is a huge factor. If you don’t try, you have to fall through the cracks and suffer as a warning to other kids to do your homework and study. I drive my kids around and when we see homeless begging for table scraps, I tell them that’s what happens when kids don’t turn in their homework, don’t study for tests and on top of that, decide it’s a good idea to try drugs or show up late to work constantly. I’d love to see everyone succeed, but if you guarantee no one fails, all the people who are barely making it will start trying less and the costs to society will be enormous.

      • Don on Nov 12, 2014 at 8:43 pm11/12/2014 8:43 pm

        • 000

        Look up “school-improvement-grants-and-the-lessons-of-history”

        LCFF will fail to produce the intended results for the same reasons SIG failed miserably. But it will press hundreds of thousands more out of a public school system that cares little for the achievers and in that way the achievement gap will narrow – top down.

        No thanks, your sentimentality has little to offer, though I respect the work you do.

        • FloydThursby1941 on Nov 12, 2014 at 10:11 pm11/12/2014 10:11 pm

          • 000

          True, the real way to integrate is to convince the rich and upper middle class to go to public schools in which nearly 2 of 3 students is on free or reduced lunch. 92% go to public schools, so part of that is that kids are more often in poverty than adults, but part of it is that those who would help a lot opt out. We need to do whatever it takes to get the well off into public schools. They donate to PTAs, integrate the schools, volunteer, and their kids set a good example, at least in most cases. Having a diverse community benefits these kids more than money poorly spent.

  4. Dylan on Aug 24, 2014 at 11:25 pm08/24/2014 11:25 pm

    • 000

    Has the utilization of online resources like Khan Academy been considered in these juvenile justice systems. This would allow the students advance their learning at their own pace while being aided by a teacher. This technique may get the students more interested in their education and improve the ease in which they can learn and fulfill their course/graduation requirements.

  5. Andrew on Apr 20, 2014 at 7:38 am04/20/2014 7:38 am

    • 000

    At least in California, and in general, a juvenile offender has to work pretty hard at it to manage to get the juvenile system to actually incarcerate him (vast majority are him) for a stint. Far from there being a “lock ’em up” mentality at the juvenile criminal level, there is a gauntlet of increasing levels of all sorts of diversions and alternatives that an offender must run before being relegated to the last resort, incarceration. And a caution I might note, juvenile records are confidential, and it seem every offender has an unverifiable public rationalization of how he was unjustly locked up for nothing.

    So incarcerated juvenile offenders are a relatively select group, having failed at various graduated diversions and alternatives as a rule. I recall one case in which I had some legal system involvement where a juvenile was charged with his 53rd burglary and got a sentence of a few months. With him, there were two choices. You could lock him up. Or while you were at work, he would be burglarizing your home.

    If someone wants him in their general ed classroom, and/or wants him burglarizing their home, they are welcome to him. His primary educational goal was to learn how to burglarize without getting caught and I assume he will eventually succeed. He needs to be educated, if possible, within the constraints possible within the system. But there are necessary limitations in confinement. In terms of allocation of finite resources, we can devote a lot more resources to the offending teen, but what about the teen with an aptitude for molecular biology who might, with her gifts nurtured generously, advance the frontiers of medical science? Ultimately, this is a zero sum game.


    • Paul on Apr 20, 2014 at 9:32 am04/20/2014 9:32 am

      • 000

      Andrew, this is probably the only topic discussed lately on EdSource Today that is not a zero-sum game. We can spend inordinate amounts of money on adult corrections, or comparatively small amounts on education for all young people and on enhanced education for juvenile offenders.

      Regarding the climate in California, it is hard to imagine that resounding voter support for the death penalty (remember Rose Bird?), for “three strikes”, and for mandatory enhanced sentences/removal of judges’ sentencing discretion does not spill over into the juvenile justice system. I often hear of cases where adult penalties are applied to juvenile offenders.

      This article opened my own eyes to problems with schooling for juvenile offenders, and led me to moderate my own views about locking up young people. I guess I trusted that the system was working as intended, when clearly, it is not. The thought that most of the young people we lock up committed victimless crimes (even though I disagree with the characterization of shoplifting as victimless), and the thought that few complete a high school diploma while locked up, are cause for grave concern.

      Whatever the path that leads a young person to prison, whatever interventions and diversions he failed or that failed him, he will need a high school diploma if we want him to have any chance at a productive life upon release. Any investment for this purpose is justified.

  6. Don on Apr 18, 2014 at 8:20 am04/18/2014 8:20 am

    • 000

    “More harm than good” compared to what? The regular education system?

    Most of the students incarcerated are the same students who have failed and dropped out of the regular system. The study results imply that the juvenile justice education should be able to do what traditional education could not. If that were the case, a failing student would be better off incarcerated in order to get a high school diploma.

    Not to be facetious, but there are certain practical limitations to providing the full range of services and programs from the inside of a jailhouse.


    • Paul on Apr 18, 2014 at 9:17 am04/18/2014 9:17 am

      • 000

      Don, I think cost is the main practical limitation, and I think we should be willing to spend the money. This applies as much to the youth’s schooling before he or she commits a crime as it does to the youth’s schooling during incarceration.

      I knew a teacher who taught in a prison school. He commented that there were no behavior problems, as there was an armed guard in the classroom. On the other hand, it was a challenge for him to teach a variety of subjects, and to teach groups of students whose skills varied widely. Overall, he liked his work and felt that his students were benefiting. Whether his experience is typical, and whether he had adequate system supports, I don’t know.

  7. Paul on Apr 18, 2014 at 7:52 am04/18/2014 7:52 am

    • 000

    As sensitive as I am to teacher- and school-bashing, I read this article in a different light. Instinctively, I interpreted it as an exposé of the weak reasons for incarcerating most juvenile offenders, and of the failure of our best intentions to educate these young people. Admittedly, I haven’t read the original report yet.

    Half of the second and all of the remaining bullet point recommendations reflect system-level obligations of the state government, as sponsor of the juvenile justice system. It’s upsetting, but hardly surprising, that bureaucracies aren’t equipped to achieve these goals. The elephant in the closet is a conservative electorate that favors “locking ’em up”, prioritizing self-righteousness over effectiveness in deterring crime and rehabilitating wrongdoers.

    I discovered recently that a former high school student of mine had a rap for attempted murder last year. Thinking of the picture of the happy kindergartner stapled to his cumulative file, and of his extraordinary intellect, still makes me cry. He’d been suspended 29 times in middle school, where one teacher observed, just as I did, “This is not the student I know.”

    Is our system fair to juvenile offenders, and are we doing everything possible for their benefit, which is also society’s benefit?

  8. Susan Frey on Apr 17, 2014 at 1:31 pm04/17/2014 1:31 pm

    • 000

    We redid the link to the press release, which then links to the story. I hope this helps.

  9. James on Apr 17, 2014 at 11:03 am04/17/2014 11:03 am

    • 000

    (Most) states require youth in Detention Centers to be provided schooling – this may be done by the state or the local school district. The report, as described, is using the complete juvenile process to trample the schools. Three examples: 1) 20% “wish to die” – this is unlikely due to attending juvie school 2) X amount of students are of color – juvie schools are not recruiting, they serve who shows up 3) schooling is “substandard” – as few of the students are regular school attendees any schooling will have a positive effect.

  10. Susan Frey on Apr 17, 2014 at 10:29 am04/17/2014 10:29 am

    • 000

    Schools refers to the educational aspect of the juvenile justice system, which is what the report covers. Depending on the state, the schools can be run by the department of education, the juvenile justice agency, the social services agency, or the correctional agency. In California, it’s the department of education. The link to the report is working for me. So let me know if you are still having problems.


    • Manuel on Apr 17, 2014 at 12:33 pm04/17/2014 12:33 pm

      • 000

      Ms. Frey, I just tried the link, which you give as

      When that link is opened, it turns into

      As you can see, it is a “protected node” and it indeed returns an “ERROR 403 – FORBIDDEN” message.

      When I tried to access it through a VPN belonging to a prominent California institution, it instead takes me to

      but it no longer gives me a 403 message. It instead politely asks me to log on because “The Page you are trying to view is password protected.”

      Perhaps you have no problems getting to it because the domain from which you are accessing it is a “trusted” domain or it has a subscription with them. Putting the report in documentcloud as John often does, however, may not be allowed since the original is restricted.

      Which forces me to ask the dumb question of the day: what’s the point of releasing a “study” that can’t be shared?

      • Susan Frey on Apr 17, 2014 at 1:32 pm04/17/2014 1:32 pm

        • 000

        We redid the link so it goes to the press release. From there you can link to the report. If it’s still not working, please let us know. Sorry for this problem.

    • navigio on Apr 17, 2014 at 4:57 pm04/17/2014 4:57 pm

      • 000

      Ok. The story indicates that the juveniles leave the system much worse than they entered it. With the implication being that the schooling was the specific cause. However I think that’s normally the impact of incarceration, even for detainees who aren’t schooled (eg adults). I wasn’t able to read the report so I don’t know how or whether they were able to extract out the impact of the schooling portion per se. But if they did not succeed in doing that (or even try) then the wording of the article and it’s title are problematic.

  11. navigio on Apr 17, 2014 at 7:38 am04/17/2014 7:38 am

    • 000

    What’s the difference between a juvenile justice system and a juvenile justice system school?


    • CarolineSF on Apr 17, 2014 at 9:26 am04/17/2014 9:26 am

      • 000

      I have the same question Navigio does — is the report specifically saying the *education* IN the juvenile justice system is setting young people back, or the entire juvenile justice system?

      I get an ominous “ERROR 403! FORBIDDEN!” when I try the link, so I can’t tell.

      I’m wondering if this report distinguishes correlation from causation, and also if it’s yet another weapon used to bash the teachers who do the most challenging work.

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