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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 Ready, High-Needs Students


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

  1. Dylan said

    on August 24, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    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.

  2. Andrew said

    on April 20, 2014 at 7:38 am

    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 replied

      on April 20, 2014 at 9:32 am

      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.

  3. Don said

    on April 18, 2014 at 8:20 am

    “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 replied

      on April 18, 2014 at 9:17 am

      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.

  4. Paul said

    on April 18, 2014 at 7:52 am

    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?

  5. Susan Frey said

    on April 17, 2014 at 1:31 pm

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

  6. James said

    on April 17, 2014 at 11:03 am

    (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.

  7. Susan Frey said

    on April 17, 2014 at 10:29 am

    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 replied

      on April 17, 2014 at 12:33 pm

      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 replied

        on April 17, 2014 at 1:32 pm

        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 replied

      on April 17, 2014 at 4:57 pm

      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.

  8. navigio said

    on April 17, 2014 at 7:38 am

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

    • CarolineSF replied

      on April 17, 2014 at 9:26 am

      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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