Education In Juvenile Detention Facilities: Inside How This Confined World Halts Chances For a Better Future



By Megan E. Helfend*

The Editors of the Criminal Law Journal take great pride in publishing the following article, which was authored by Megan E. Helfend, a law student at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. Ms. Helfend won one of five Honorable Mention Prizes in the 2016-2017 Competition for Student Papers in Criminal Law and/or Criminal Procedure, sponsored by the Criminal Law Section of the State Bar.

The judges of the writing competition were impressed by the quality and caliber of entries in this year’s competition and offer their gratitude and encouragement to those students, from law schools throughout the country, who submitted articles. All law students are cordially invited to participate in the 2017-2018 Competition.

I. Introduction

Toney Jennings was an illiterate, 16-year-old boy when he was arrested. During the six months he spent in a juvenile detention facility in Mississippi, he spent most of his time playing basketball, watching TV, and generally "keeping to [himself]." Ask an average 16-year-old boy the same question and you will likely receive a very different answer. Although many children may list their favorite activities, the average child will likely mention school when asked what occupies most of their time. Toney Jennings did not list school. In fact, when probed further, Toney said that he never even attended class while in jail. Toney is now roughly 22-years-old, and still unable to read and write.1

Education is a fundamental human right. Although not a recognized federal constitutional right, it is a basic public expectation that all children have the right to attend public school. While the federal government does not recognize it, nearly every State Constitution in the United States does in fact enumerate a right to education. Despite this seeming commitment to public education, our system lacks proper execution in many public schools, leading to a growing population of youth pushed into prison. This problem is only compounded by the lack of quality educational programs in juvenile detention facilities across the nation.

In 1974, Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act requiring that states receiving federal funding focus on prevention, intervention, and accountability. Sadly, state and federal budget cuts beginning in the 1980s resulted in a decrease in spending on education programs in detention facilities, leaving most detained children without access to quality public education guaranteed to them by their state constitution. Providing youth with quality educational services is a fundamental right enumerated in state constitutions and federal legislation, a right that is often never met in juvenile detention facilities with lacking accessibility to resources. Quality educational services are essential to keeping children engaged in their education and focused on their futures, encouraging a successful return to school upon release and preparing children rather hindering their abilities for future success.

II. Goal of the Juvenile Court

When the first juvenile court was created in the United States, the aim was clearly devised. With a basis in parens patriae, the state’s duty to provide care for those who cannot care for themselves, a goal of rehabilitating rather than penalizing juvenile offenders emerged.2 While the founders steered away from the punitive approach used in adult criminal courts, the juvenile court system in recent years started to employ more punishment and less rehabilitation. However, if rehabilitation is still the goal of juvenile courts, education is a fundamental and necessary component of that process.

Research shows that education leads to reduced recidivism rates, which at its core is the goal of the juvenile justice and criminal justice system.3 Incarceration alone does not result in preventing and reducing crime, rather, educational skills help deter young people from committing criminal acts and greatly decrease the likelihood that they will return to crime after release. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that teaching reading skills to juveniles works significantly better at reducing recidivism rates than boot camp programs.4 The Alabama State Board of Education said, "Correctional Education appears to be the number one factor in reducing recidivism rates nationwide."5 Even the Federal Bureau of Prisons agrees, stating there is an inverse relationship between recidivism rates and education.6

There is a strong link between low levels of education and high rates of criminal behavior. One of the best predictors of adult criminal behavior is involvement with the juvenile justice system. With few resources dedicated to education in juvenile detention facilities, it is not shocking to discover that many juveniles find themselves involved with the criminal justice system as adults. Education is the basis for rehabilitation, as evidenced by the staggering statistics regarding recidivism rates. If the government, along with individual detention facilities, can provide a quality education for detained youths, these children are more likely than not to stay out of prison and to successfully integrate themselves back into society.

III. Right to Education in the United States

With the goal of rehabilitation in mind and the understanding of education’s role in accomplishing that, federal and state laws govern juveniles’ right to receive an education in detention facilities. Today, every state has a compulsory education statute, requiring state legislatures to provide free public education for all children residing within the state.7 While delinquent youth clearly fall within the statute, detention centers do not always provide what the statute mandates.

There are two federal statutes that are directly applicable to a child’s right to education in juvenile detention facilities: the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA). IDEA is important for juvenile delinquents because it is the basis for a wealth of litigation involving education services for children with disabilities in juvenile detention. The statute requires that states receiving federal funding for students with disabilities ensure that all eligible students receive a "free appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment."8

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The state has an obligation to identify and evaluate children with disabilities and create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to meet the student’s needs in addition to providing "related services," such as counseling, speech therapy, physical therapy, recreation, etc.9 Considering that these obligations apply in both the regular school context and juvenile detention context, education services provided in juvenile detention often fall short of IDEA requirements. One study demonstrated that while nearly 70% of children in correctional facilities qualified for special education services under IDEA, only 30% actually received those services.10 IDEA’s provisions were developed with school settings in mind, making the implementation of IDEA in correctional facilities particularly challenging. IDEA’s reach is very limited for juveniles because it only applies to students with disabilities and cannot govern the education of all juveniles.

No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA)11 explicitly applies to detained juveniles and protects all youth in detention facilities.12 It implements requirements for states that receive federal education funding. The "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP) mandate requires all schools, including schools in juvenile detention centers, to evaluate student achievement in a number of areas.13 However, a study found that at least nineteen states were not including juvenile detention schools in their AYP assessment, leaving these children without a benchmark to continue their education.14 This leads to educational services that do not match up with the individual student’s abilities. Additionally, the NCLBA also mandates that states ensure that all teachers are "highly qualified" through (1) full certification, (2) demonstrated competence in each subject area they teach, and (3) attainment of a Bachelor’s degree.15 Despite these requirements, studies show that states are only minimally applying these NCLBA requirements and there are very few consequences for these violations, giving states little incentive to achieve compliance. The only federal enforcement mechanism for violations of these requirements is a withholding of funds from non-complying states.16 The NCBLA requirements, if met, would improve education in juvenile detention facilities but the implementation of this Act does not seem to experience a lasting effect.

IV. Special Education is the Biggest Challenge in Juvenile Detention Centers

While juvenile detention centers are met with many challenges to properly and effectively implement adequate educational services, the large population of special education students only exacerbates the problem. Even though illiteracy and poor academic performance are not a cause of criminal behavior, youths who received insufficient education or who exhibit poor literacy skills are disproportionately found in the juvenile justice system.

Research shows that youths in juvenile facilities are typically below grade level in test scores and commonly have a history of school failure, with an estimated 75% of youths in juvenile facilities failing one or more courses and 40-50% who have been retained at least one grade level.17 Sixteen percent (16%) of youths under 18 did not even have an eighth grade education.18 Approximately 40% of youths held in detention centers may have some form of a learning disability, compared with only 13% among the general population. However, this 40% only includes youths with an identified learning disability, while many more detained children may have cognitive and other disabilities that are unidentified or undiagnosed.19Additionally, youth in detention centers at a median age of 15.5 years and in the ninth grade read, on average, at the fourth-grade level.20

With such astoundingly high rates of learning disabilities and staggeringly low rates of literacy skills and academic performance, juvenile offenders are in desperate need of a quality education. Despite this incredible need, students are likely to be denied quality education. Educational programs in correctional facilities very often do not meet juveniles’ special education needs. While correctional education programs are within the scope of IDEA’s mandate for a "free and appropriate public education" for children with disabilities, many facilities throughout the United States do not adhere to these rules. A study of southern correctional facilities found that although nearly 70% of children in these correctional facilities needed special education services, only 30% actually received them.21

The availability of special education services varies considerably based on the type of correctional facility, but largely, special education services in juvenile detention centers are implemented in conjunction with general academic and vocational programs. Rather than educating students with special needs separately, detention centers tend to render education jointly. As such, youths with disabilities are more vulnerable to exclusion from school for disciplinary reasons in the correctional education program as well as the larger institution.22

However, the largest obstacle confronting detention facilities’ implementation of special education services is an inability to quickly access a juvenile’s school records and conduct proper screenings to determine any unidentified disorders or past services provided. Without school records, a child’s special education needs cannot properly be identified. One study found that staff in correctional facilities reported that some school districts refused to release student records without parental permission, delaying the identification of students with disabilities and the provision of appropriate services.23 This challenge is further frustrated by varying and often short lengths of stay in detention centers, frequently not providing enough time for the needs of children to be properly identified and assessed. Students with an existing IEP tend to experience interrupted services and/or do not receive the same level of services sustained at their prior school. This could be avoided if proper screenings were conducted to avoid a lapse in services. It is not uncommon for youths to have exited the correctional system by the time their school records arrived.24

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Additional problems face detention facilities with respect to special education needs of detained youth. Teachers are often poorly trained to meet the special needs of children in those detention facilities. Despite the large number of children with learning disabilities, only approximately 28% of teachers have special education certification.25 Further, while centers tend to use the same curriculum found in local school districts, the curriculum may not meet a student needs. Centers likely do not have the same textbooks or workbooks used in the child’s traditional school, meaning students may fall behind their peers in their regular school.26

Research suggests that an effective special education program provides the following: (1) a functional assessment of the child, (2) a functional curriculum that meets student’s individual needs, (3) a functional instruction using positive and direct instructional strategies (4) vocational training opportunities, (5) transition services for the child, (6) a full range of education and related services, and (7) professional development for educators and staff.27 Based on all of the above information, it is not shocking that these ideals are rarely met.

V. Current Practices and Challenges in Juvenile Detention

In addition to the challenges facing special education students in juvenile detention centers, the remainder of detained youths in these facilities is also not receiving adequate education. The education provided overwhelmingly does not meet general state standards for public schools or the specific needs of incarcerated youths. While the care and treatment of youths in detention facilities are the responsibility of the state, educational services look and feel very different than those outside of detention centers. They are organized very differently from traditional public schools, providing detained youths with a starkly different experience than they were accustomed to prior to detention or as required by law.

Detention centers often only provide short, infrequent classes, and even these are often not based around a meaningful curriculum. Some detention centers do not have separate classrooms or libraries, forcing students to be educated above or below their grade level.28 The case study of the Youth Study Center, a detention facility in New Orleans, found that students’ instruction was "neither grade nor age level appropriate." An 11th grade student at the detention facility recalled that he was talked to "like we was dumb, like we didn’t know nothing." He furthered mentioned that he attended class a maximum of three to four times but "there wasn’t no teaching, all the assignments were middle school stuff." Another student mentioned that he worked on a Sudoku puzzle with eight other youth for approximately one hour, serving as his education for the day.29

Clearly, juvenile detention centers lack general education services. However, there are also educational barriers that exist in the transition from custody back to the community. More than two-thirds of youth who return home from residential placement do not return to school upon release.30Schools often do not want these children back, but more importantly, children are often released mid-semester and custodial credits earned are not transferred to their home school. Children are not prepared for their release and are often not properly transitioned back to society.31

VI. Solutions to the Problem

While the educational disparities in our society are stagnant, our nation cannot continue to accept the future risks, poor outcomes, and collateral consequences that too often result for incarcerated youth. Providing youth with quality educational services during incarceration is essential to keeping them engaged in their education and focused on their futures.

It is important that juvenile detention centers receive necessary funding to support educational opportunities for all youth. While there is high competition for a limited amount of money from federal, state, and local governments, the agency operating the facility should plan for and develop a dedicated and appropriate education budget. Education funding should be allocated sufficiently to enable detention facilities to provide education programs comparable to those provided in the public school system and to fully address the needs of the students in their care. Additionally, federal, state, and local sources should provide funding to support quality education for all students.

Furthermore, it is necessary for detention centers to improve recruitment, employment, and retention of qualified education staff. It is indisputable that students who are at risk and who had prior negative educational experiences need teachers who set high expectations and demonstrate a range of competencies. While identifying and hiring these teachers can be difficult based on preconceived notions about working with incarcerated youth, juvenile detention centers can start by requiring that all education staff hold valid credentials to ensure that new hires have the capability to address the needs of the school and students. In addition, detention centers can implement a teacher evaluation process to assess teacher performance to ensure that teachers are properly utilizing their credentials.

One of the most important improvements juvenile detention facilities must make is executing a curriculum aligned with state academic education standards. There is no question that a rigorous curriculum correlates with post-high school achievement. It is important to give incarcerated youth the same opportunities for success as those in normal schools. Interruption of the education program must be eliminated so students can continue to experience a regular school day while incarcerated. While this is a difficult task, perhaps the characteristics of a detention facility can be curtailed, such as drills and lineups, to focus on the rehabilitative rather than punitive goals of youth incarceration.

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Enabling an adequate curriculum is tough to materialize. Instructional methods and materials must be tailored to the various grade levels and ages of the students. There should be more than one general classroom where all students learn to guarantee students are receiving appropriate grade and age level teaching. Additionally, students should be encouraged to engage and participate in the learning process by understanding the importance and relevance of the schoolwork.

Finally, formal processes and procedures should be in place for children to experience a smooth reentry into their community. Facilities often work in isolation and without necessary internal or external support. There should be formal learning and therapeutic opportunities for youth prior to reentry that are focused on emotional and behavioral development. Staff can work with families to ensure that they understand the importance of helping their children reintegrate themselves back to their normal life and, ultimately, back into society.


The passage of Proposition 57 in California during the November 8, 2016 election provides hope that progress is underway for juveniles faced with the juvenile justice system. Proposition 57 amended the law to require judges, rather than prosecutors, to determine whether juveniles charged with certain crimes should be tried in juvenile or adult court.

Prop 57 eliminates the discretion of prosecutors to file against a juvenile in adult court. Youth are now required to have a hearing in juvenile court to determine eligibility for transfer. This transfer of power from prosecutors to judges illustrates the progress our society is making to protect juveniles and paves the way for education centered legislation to be proposed to further aid and propel youth in a beneficial and rehabilitative direction. The next step is to provide a quality education for children in custody.

Children in juvenile detention have a right to an adequate education under their state constitutions as well as federal laws. Evidence overwhelmingly and tragically suggests that children are not receiving proper education while detained. The limitations detention centers face in educating these children do not excuse the lack of adequate educational services that children are entitled to under the law. Quality education in the juvenile detention context is entirely possible and juveniles can make significant gains in education while in confinement if given the opportunity to do so.

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*. Megan E. Helfend is a 2017 J.D. graduate of Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. She has demonstrated throughout her law school career an interest and strong commitment to issues involving children. Ms. Helfend plans to focus her time and talents on indigent juvenile criminal defense after passing the bar examination.

1. Jackie Mader and Sarah Butrymowicz, Pipeline to Prison: How the juvenile justice system fails special education students, The Heghinger Report, October 26, 2014, http:/

2. Janet Gilbert, Richard Grimm & John Parnham, Apply Therapeutic Principles to Family-Focused Juvenile Justice Model (Delinquency), 52 Ala. L. Rev. 1153, 1159 (2001).

3. Katherine Twomey, The Right to Education in Juvenile Detention Under State Constitutions, 94. VA. L. Rev. 765, 767 (2008).

4. Open Society Institute, Research Brief: Education as Crime Prevention, the center on grime, communities & culture, (Sept. 1997) available at

5. Id.

6. Id.

7. Mitchell L. Yell, David Rogers & Elisabeth Lodge Rodgers, The Legal History of Special Education: What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been, Remedial and Special Education 219, 219 (1998).

8. 20 U.S.C § 1412.

9. Twomey at 775.

10. Id.

11. 20 U.S.C §§ 6301-7941 (Supp. V 2005).

12. Id. § 6315(b)(2)(D).

13. Twomey at 778.

14. Bruce I. Wolford, Juvenile Justice Education: "Who is Educating the Youth," training resource center (May 2000) available at

15. Id. at 83.

16. Twomey at 779.

17. R.M. Foley, Academic characteristics of incarcerated youth and correctional educational programs, Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 248-259, (2001).

18. Caroline Wolf Harlow, Education and Correctional Populations, U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, available at (last updated May 15, 2003).

19. Kevin W. Alltucker, Michael Bullis, Daniel Close & Paul Yovanoff, Different Pathways to Juvenile Delinquency: Characteristics of Early and Late Starters in a Sample of Previously Incarcerated Youth, J. of Child and Family Studies, 479, 481 (2006).

20. Open Society Institute, Research Brief: Education as Crime Prevention, the center on grime, communities & culture, (Sept. 1997),

21. Twomey at 771.

22. Juvenile Correctional Education Programs, Special Education in Correctional Facilities, The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice, (last visited Feb. 20, 2017).

23. See Leone, Peter. Education services for youth with disabilities in a state-operated juvenile correctional system: Case study and analysis. The Journal of Special Education 28, 1994.

24. Id.

25. Id. at 69.

26. Jackie Mader and Sarah Butrymowicz, Pipeline to Prison: How the juvenile justice system fails special education students, The Heghinger Report, October 26, 2014,

27. Special Education in Correctional Facilities, Special Education in Correctional Facilities, The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice, (last visited Feb. 20, 2017).

28. Twomey at 771.

29. Dignity in Schools Campaign, The Right to Education in the Juvenile and Criminal Justice System in the United States, (Dec. 31, 2008) available at

30. See Twomey at 773.

31. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch, Custody and Control: Conditions of Confinement in New York’s Juvenile Prisons for Girls Custody and Control (2006).