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Headed Back to School… In the Justice System

Posted in 2017, Voices Tuesday, 05 September 2017

By Marcy Mistrett, CEO 

With the conclusion of Labor Day Weekend, summer is officially “over”—and hundreds of thousands of children return to school this week.  Across the Internet, we see families readying themselves for the year—buying school supplies, new shoes, and happily attending ‘meet your teacher days.’  Discussions on standardized tests, teachers unions, shortages in school budgets, and achievement gaps begin to fill social conversations.

But what about the 48,000 children who sleep in secure facilities every night who are relying on the penal system for their education?  Education in the justice system is far from robust.  Despite research from the US Department of Justice showing that education reduces future criminal behavior by as much as 43%, there has been a serious disinvestment in the education services provided to the incarcerated population since the 1970s. In fact, the same bill that responded to the youth “superpredator” craze of the 1990’s (The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act) stripped Pell grant eligibility for the incarcerated population in 1994—this included children who were incarcerated in adult facilities. The decision to cut this funding was made with support from both sides of the aisle—despite it already being well documented that 60% of adult inmates and 85% of incarcerated children are functionally illiterate.  For children tried as adults, access to education is particularly difficult.

CFYJ’s spokespeople share stories of getting elementary aged worksheets to work on while incarcerated; of being denied books and other reading materials when put on disciplinary action; of spending countless hours of idle time with nothing to do. Non-profit programs that visit jails and prisons become a life-line for many.  We regularly hear about ways the InsideOUT Writers Program, FreeMinds Book Club and Writers Workshop, and others like them changed the trajectory of a young person’s life.

While the country has made some progress toward protecting the educational rights of incarcerated children under the Obama Administration, including stronger provisions in ESSA and access to Pell grant funding for youth detained in juvenile settings, youth housed in adult facilities are still frequently deprived of educational opportunities that would be provided if they were held in age-appropriate facilities in the juvenile justice system. 

While access to educational opportunities are minimized for youth held in adult facilities, there are still opportunities for advocacy particularly for youth with disabilities.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has the most protections for youth in adult facilities, though even these are reduced from services allowed if youth were housed in the juvenile justice system.  These protections include the ability to file a due process complaint and sue under the law.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act’s Youthful Inmate Standard also calls on facilities to,“absent exigent circumstances, agencies shall not deny youthful inmates daily large-muscle exercise and any legally required special education.  Finally, Title II of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) also provides limited protections for educational opportunities for youth incarcerated in adult facilities with a diagnosed disability.  Attention to these protections are critical as Congress and the Administration look to reauthorize and potentially cut programming in these areas.

The Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS) has been a champion in highlighting the importance of quality education for detained youth.  Their purpose is to, “to make school engaging, meaningful and beneficial in detention facilities.”  This year, they began operating a school for youth certified as adults in New Orleans Parish Jail, as well as overseeing the education of youth in the juvenile detention facility.  Led by David Domenici, who opened a charter school in the DC youth correctional facility, New Beginnings, CEEAS brings technical support and expertise to teacher development, student engagement, and systems support for meeting the needs of youth with special education needs particularly as it applies to effective behavior management strategies.  

On Friday, September 8, 2017, The Legal Center for Youth Justice and Education is holding a community conference from 1-2pm EST to discuss the unique education challenges of youth in the adult criminal justice system. Speakers will include Jeree Thomas (CFYJ Policy Director), David Domenici (Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings), and Rebecca Livengood from the ACLU-NJ.  Please register here to receive Conference Call Dial-In Information.