October is Youth Justice Action Month (YJAM). The youth criminal justice system is far from just — young people remain over-policed and over-criminalized, pushing Black children and other children of color into a system proven to cause long-lasting harm. YJAM is an opportunity to connect virtually, learn more about the harms of our current systems, and take action to support our young people!
School Behind the Walls: Students in the Youth Justice System
There are over 43,000 children and adolescents under the age of 18 living in juvenile detention centers on any given day. This includes more than 500 very young children — elementary school-aged kids 12 and younger. Most (two-thirds) are age 16 and older. Children are subjected to harsher environments once placed in juvenile detention centers where they are expected to grow mentally and physically while shut off from the outside world. Children are taken from everything they have known including their homes, schools, family, and friends. Additionally, racial disparity is a huge problem when it comes to who is admitted into juvenile detention centers. The Black youth incarceration rate is 4.6 times higher than their white peers: 383 per 100,000 youth compared to 83 per 100,000. The current incarceration rate for Latinx youth is 42 percent higher than their white peers: 118 per 100,000 compared to 83 per 100,000.
Education is crucial for all young people, regardless of their experience in the juvenile justice system. Not surprisingly, however, youth in detention are more likely to have been disconnected from school and to have a learning disability than those without court contact. Predictably, literacy levels are lower for children in juvenile facilities than children in the general public. The question is, what happens to students who go to school behind the walls of juvenile detention facilities?
The answer to that question differs. There are over 600 juvenile detention facilities in the U.S., and very few standards for what is taught in these facilities, who teaches it, and whether what a student learns can meet credit requirements to help them progress in school. In most places, young people are set up to fail. Often, students returning to school lack complete academic documentation, making it hard to re-enroll in school in their community and creating barriers to continue their classes. Shockingly, in many places, school work in detention cannot be transferred outside the institution. This reduces the incentive to pursue education during detention and leads to many young people not returning to school. Why do the work all over again?
Benefits of Investing in Education
We have to do better. While we need to move toward de-incarcerating youth and serving more in the community, as long as we operate juvenile detention, it must meet young people’s needs. One reason is that it is essential to community safety. Research shows that young people are less likely to have contact with police and the juvenile criminal legal system in the future if they can access education while incarcerated.
Another reason is cost. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year incarcerating children in the U.S. We are wasting those dollars if they aren’t being invested in education for youth. According to one study, every dollar that is spent on education for incarcerated youth contributes to the savings of 4 to 5 dollars in future re-incarceration costs.
My Vision for Education and Youth Justice
Youth are still growing and learning at such a young age. They should not be subjected to such a harsh punishment because that affects them long-term. Placing them in juvenile detention centers does more damage especially when these centers are not equipped to truly help them on their educational journey. Education is not put at the forefront in many juvenile detention centers which causes a lot of the youth who reside there to fall behind. How can we expect youth to continue school once released when their learning process is corrupted? There needs to be more oversight with regards to the implementation of education correctly into juvenile facilities. There are so many different educational programs that not only educate children but also help them express themselves in creative ways. This would ultimately increase their communication and comprehension skills. Children are the future and not taking the time to properly educate them or learn what they truly need to succeed in life is very detrimental. Children have a voice and people need to hear it because it would give everyone insight on how the world looks in their eyes.
This blog was written by Nia Gibson. Nia Gibson is 23 years old and a Tow Justice Fellow with Children’s Defense Fund-New York. Nia is currently in her last year of graduate school at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She is obtaining her Masters in Public Administration (MPA) with a specialization in Investigation & Operational Inspection.