Juvenile justice educational programs can have a hard time keeping up with the myriad backgrounds and needs of detained juveniles.
But state and national legislatures, the U.S. Department of Justice and many advocacy groups around the country are pushing for reform that has seen juvenile justice system education improvements take shape.
What it takes to make a good juvenile justice education program
Beyond following legal standards, there are a set of principles that institutions with low-quality educational programs can follow to get their schooling up to par, as laid out by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education.
Essentially, these programs need to set up detained children with everything they need to successfully get through school while in the system. This involves providing necessary counseling and support for all youths, including those with learning disabilities and emotional issues, recruiting highly qualified teachers, aligning curricula with state standards and establishing procedures for re-entry after release.
Legislation working for reform
While some programs are an unfortunately long way from establishing these principles, recent legislation has established more support and rights for detained juveniles, thus providing a basis for advocacy and reform.
In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act, despite its many issues, provided funds for educational programs for youth in correctional facilities or community day programs. Then, the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) granted rights to students with disabilities to special education services, and extended these rights into the juvenile justice system.
Most recently, the House of Representatives passed the Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act of 2016, which aims to smooth the transition between juvenile justice programs and the public education system, and requires more data reporting about juvenile justice programs.
A current list of pending state legislation regarding juvenile justice education can be found here.
Advocacy working for reform
On the back of increased awareness and stronger legislative framework, advocacy groups have been pairing with government organizations to file class-action lawsuits and push for reform.
According to a 2010 report by the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, there have been class-action suits initiated in 26 different states since 1990. The suits most commonly cite violations of IDEA and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Other cases alleged that juvenile facilities failed to provide educational services, noted discrepancies between the quality of correctional education versus public education and pointed to a lack of materials or classroom space for proper schooling.
One example was the 2003 lawsuit filed by a California citizen against the state juvenile justice system, alleging that detained juveniles were not being provided adequate health care, treatment and rehabilitation services.
Examples of successful reforms
The California lawsuit actually turned into a success story that proves promising for broader reform.
A year after the suit was filed, California’s juvenile justice system agreed to implement reforms in safety and welfare, mental health, education, and other treatment and services. An important aspect was the agreed implementation of the Integrated Behavior Treatment Model, which established a system for assessing, understanding and treating youth.
Reform of educational systems is slow-moving and strenuous, but, earlier this year, over a decade after its launch, the lawsuit was thrown out after massive improvements in the system led to it being hailed as a “national leader in rehabilitation.”
One general strategy for improvement has been to decrease the populations of detained juveniles by diverting low-level offenders out of facilities and into community programs; a method advocated for by the ACLU and Children’s Defense Fund. This strategy, combined with vocal advocacy and falling crime rates, has seen the number of juveniles in residential placement drop by almost half between 1997 and 2013.
Many programs may have a long way to go to meet the standards of education services for detained youth, but we know from examples of successful lawsuits that meaningful reform is possible.
So, if we want to use our juvenile justice system as a genuine means of rehabilitation, we need to start implementing these strategies for change.
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