Down But Not Out: CTE and Apprenticeship for Youth in the Justice System

Financially and socially, work-based learning makes sense for incarcerated and at-risk young people.
Blog Post
July 31, 2017

Putting people in jail, which the United States does at a higher rate than almost any other country, isn’t cheap. It’s especially costly to detain young people, who must receive crucial education, therapy, and rehabilitation behind bars, but at vastly higher expense.

Education programs have been credited for reducing recidivism of prisoners by 43 percent, and a $1 investment in such programs reduces costs of incarceration by $4 to $5 within three years of release. Recent initiatives like the Second Chance Pell Pilot program could help to cover the costs of conventional classroom-based postsecondary education for incarcerated students, but more hands-on approaches are also worth the investment. 

Annual Average Costs:
Public K-12 education per pupil: $12,508
Two-year public college for in-state students (tuition and room/board): $11,580
Four-year public university for in-state students (tuition and room/board): $20,090
Adult incarceration for a single individual: $31,286
Youth incarceration for a single individual: $112,555

By helping high-risk youth to develop valuable skills through work-based learning opportunities like career and technical education (CTE), internships, pre-apprenticeships, and registered apprenticeships, the U.S. can position itself to advance its workforce and prospectively lower the $80 billion spent annually on incarceration and the $8-$21 billion spent annually on youth incarceration. But when it comes to work-based learning, finding companies willing to train young people is a challenge–and it's even harder when those young people are in the justice system, or just recently out of it. 

The Community Restitution Apprenticeship-Focused Training (CRAFT) program manages the feat, exemplifying the double success of reduced corrections spending and overall economic development. A pre-apprenticeship program directed towards juvenile offenders with a history of substance abuse, CRAFT aims to improve outcomes in employment and educational attainment when young citizens return to society. CRAFT uses an apprenticeship-based learning model where students work with the instructor in a simulated work environment fully equipped with tools and supplies set up in workstations based on a particular skill, such as plumbing or drywall. As students become more proficient in specific skills, they are able to work on projects outside of the classroom. Various projects—for example, restoring a restroom to functionality—were implemented inside a large unused warehouse building that needed repairs.

The program includes six months of Home Builders Institute (HBI) Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training (PACT), where students take part in construction-specific training (75 percent hands-on work and 25 percent classroom instruction) with an emphasis on problem-solving and real world skills, all while working on their GED or high school diploma concurrently. 

In a study comparing outcomes between juvenile offenders who were in the CRAFT program and those who weren't, CRAFT participants were significantly more likely to be employed over the three-year follow-up period (76 percent compared to 50 percent) with a much higher proportion finding jobs in the construction field (46 percent compared to 19 percent in the control group). Additionally, youth that participated in CRAFT were significantly more likely to have attended a GED program (50 percent compared 26 percent). It’s important to note that both the program participants and the control group had the same access to mental health counseling and therapy, which are indispensable services for juvenile offenders. 

CRAFT isn’t the only program working to ease young people’s transitions as they leave incarceration and get on with the rest of their lives. Others include: 

Justice to Journeymen, a registered apprenticeship pilot program in Kentucky geared towards adult prisons and juvenile justice centers, intended to allow apprentices to complete 2,000 to 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and work towards an industry certification. Apprenticeships are offered in electrical skills, carpentry, telecommunications, masonry, welding, and building maintenance. The program has three sites in its pilot phase: Amtek, the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters & Service Technicians, and the Associated Builders & Contractors Chapter of Indiana/Kentucky. Although there is no guarantee of a job after completing the program, the credential and experience gained will allow these men and women to have a higher chance of being employed by a partner organization. The program is a collaboration between the Kentucky Labor Cabinet and Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. 

Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES), a New York based program that offers pre-internship preparation and part-time internships through small businesses and nonprofits for first-time felony offenders between the ages of 15 and 19. Within two years of program completion, 90 percent of recent CASES graduates have had no new convictions. CASES operates nine programs, including the Brooklyn and Queens Justice Program, which placed over 100 participants in 10 community benefit projects and 61 participants into paid internships in 2015.

Gulf Coast Trades Center (GCTC), an academic and occupational training program in Texas offering programs related to automotive technology, building maintenance, culinary arts, horticulture, masonry, and others to youth ages 16 to 19 in the justice system. Juvenile probation departments in over 40 counties refer youth to the GCTC. 

States can also look to initiatives such as Redeploy Illinois, which reduced the cost of juvenile detention centers by providing comprehensive support and wraparound services to delinquent youth within their home communities. Additionally, communities can push for pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships for marginalized but non-incarcerated populations. The San Francisco Conservation Corps, part of the California pre-apprenticeship training pilots, established to train disadvantaged workers, veterans, and youth in clean energy jobs; another, Philadelphia Works, developed a pre-apprenticeship program for high-risk youth to train them to become IT specialists or behavioral health technicians. Another Pennsylvania initiative geared to incarcerated youth, the “LifeSkills Training” program, resulted in a benefit of $26 per $1 spent, equating to $16 million in savings.

Dividends like this have evidently become too significant to ignore. A bipartisan bill to strengthen the Federal Juvenile Justice Law recently passed the House of Representatives, advocating support for improved conditions and educational services for incarcerated youth, and an executive order last month highlighted the value of apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships for persons currently or formerly incarcerated, among other groups. But at the same time, the FY 2018 budget proposes a cut to juvenile justice programs from $273 million to $230 million. Noble intentions will go nowhere without financial support and a strong legislative mandate: with apprenticeships and work-based learning becoming the forefront of recent federal news, lawmakers should capitalize on work-based learning for some of America’s most at-risk young people.