Youth at Risk: The Neglected Education of Incarcerated Juveniles

Accountability at the intersection of education and justice reform is crucial for our most vulnerable populations.
Blog Post
March 28, 2017

In late February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a decision to roll back restrictions from the Obama Administration that called for the reduction of private prison use. According to Sessions, the move would provide “flexibility” and allow the Bureau of Prisons to be more effective. In keeping with the Trump Administration, Sessions has taken a strict stance on “enforcing law and order” in the country, and this includes dealing with incarcerated youth.

Sessions has been a longtime supporter of youth incarceration as a means to deal with crime, which he and President Trump have claimed is on the rise (despite evidence to the contrary). As the Attorney General of Alabama in 1994, Sessions was an advocate for increasing federal funds to create youth detention facilities, as well as strict forms of discipline for incarcerated youth. In 1999, as chairman of the Senate’s Youth Violence Subcommittee, Sessions pushed to prioritize youth punishment systems over prevention programs, stating that the juvenile court system worked better in reducing rates of crime. It seems that Sessions, as Attorney General, hasn’t changed his tune on youth incarceration in almost 20 years.

And just what does Session’s stance mean for incarcerated youth today? While little is known about what specific policies the new Attorney General may enact regarding youth facilities, his decision to re-expand the private prison industry is telling. In 2013, there were about 36,000 incarcerated youth, and about 32% of them were detained or incarcerated in privately run facilities. In 2014 this number dropped to 29%, the lowest it had been since 1999--but it is now likely to rise again.

That same year, the Obama Administration released its Guiding Principles for Providing High-Quality Education in Juvenile Justice Secure Care Settings. The guidance, which was released jointly by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, was meant to improve the education of incarcerated youth in secure care facilities in order to allow them to better transition back into school and society upon their release. Recommendations for these secure care facilities—via five guiding principles—called for better emotional and developmental support, as well as ensuring that curricula aligned with state academic and career standards.

Unfortunately, a 2015 report indicated that there were still 15 states that did not include juvenile justice facilities in their State Education Accountability system. Thus, these facilities are not being held to the same accountability standards as public schools in how well they serve students. Moreover, many states did not hold justice facility educators to the same accountability standards as public school teachers, and only 30 states required juvenile facility schools to be accredited. Given that incarcerated youth are more likely to be below grade level and require IEPs, the lack of state accountability in juvenile facilities presents a problem for ensuring that they are receiving quality, meaningful education.

It is also likely that the problem is exacerbated in private facilities. While most states do collect educational outcome data for state-run facilities, only 20% of states collected the same data across both for privately-run facilities. 60% of states do not know what outcome data is collected in privately-run facilities, meaning that many privately-run facilities are free to operate their educational systems as they please. In fact, 10% of privately-run facilities never evaluate their incarcerated youth during their stay. Without either accountability or transparency, policymakers and the public have no way to even know how poorly prison education programs are performing.

Given that the average length of stay for incarcerated youth is about 3 to 12 months, the lack of consistent education, accountability, and evaluation—particularly in private facilities—means that students are likely to fall even further behind in coursework. This sets them up for failure when trying to integrate back into the public school system; many incarcerated youth are more likely to end up back in jail or never graduate.

In the same 1999 speech where Sessions advocated for increasing funding for juvenile detention centers, he stated that juvenile court systems were never designed for punishment. This, he stated, was a “false myth”.  “In fact,” Sessions insisted, “It was always designed to intervene to reduce delinquency and try to turn the lives of young people around.” If Sessions truly believes that juvenile detention centers are intended to help youth, private facilities will need to be held to the same educational accountability standards as state-run facilities. In turn, the entire system will need to be aligned with state education accountability standards.

Given all the talk of education reform on the Hill, little is mentioned about the education of incarcerated youth. However, given the Trump Administration’s heavy-handed approach to both crime and immigration, it is likely that we will see an uptick in the number of incarcerations—including temporary incarcerations for many deportees.  As such, it will be more crucial than ever to pay attention to the juvenile justice education system to ensure that every single student—including incarcerated ones—are receiving quality education.