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

April 17, 2014

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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:



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