New York City has a tortured history educating its youth caught up in the criminal justice system. Until the last decade, city judges sent young people with delinquency cases hours away from home to isolated, barbed-wired youth prisons, where subpar schooling left them far behind their former classmates. Upon release back to their neighborhoods – where school reentry wasn’t even always allowed – hard-earned credits achieved behind bars often didn’t count toward graduation.
“Kids were being effectively segregated as a result,” said Dawn Yuster, director of the School Justice Project at the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New York. “Things were really horrible.”
A new report released Thursday highlights the steps some places like New York have taken to fix these problems – and how far the rest of the country has to go to ensure that youth receive a quality education while detained and that the credits earned follow them home after release, according to the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Education Law Center and Drexel University.
In New York City, most youth in the juvenile justice system are now held in more residential, homelike buildings within the five boroughs. The facilities are managed by social services organizations and include on-site or nearby schools – with a curriculum pre-approved by the city’s Department of Education and co-managed by partner agencies in local government.
Across the rest of the country, authors of the “Credit Overdue” report found, system-involved youth don’t receive anywhere near that level of coordination between school districts and detention centers. And the result is damaged lives and futures, the report concludes: Too often, schoolwork behind bars simply goes to waste.
“As long as states and local jurisdictions continue to send young people to juvenile justice facilities, it is unconscionable to deprive them of the educational opportunities and academic credits they deserve,” the authors state.
There are nearly 50,000 people ages 13 to 21 confined on any given day who may spend weeks to months not attending their regular schools.
Many of those young people are moved from facility to facility so frequently they don’t have enough time to complete classes. The courses they do finish don’t always apply to their home schools or fulfill core requirements. In some cases, youth miss the opportunity to transfer credits they do earn, because detention facilities and schools do not clearly designate who is responsible for delivering transcripts and clearing up any confusion.
The education report released this week is based on a first-of-its-kind national survey of 208 professionals from 135 counties across 34 states and the District of Columbia. It looked not only at whether kids were earning credit for the coursework they completed but also at why credits were not being awarded and the consequences of that failure.
Only 9% of survey respondents said youth always earn credit for all their coursework in detention facilities, where youth remain mostly for short stays while awaiting court hearings. In juvenile facilities where youth are placed for longer terms after their case has been adjudicated, the situation isn’t much better. There, 17% of respondents reported that youth always earn credit for all work.
And for students who do not receive credit for their schoolwork, the consequences of a disrupted education can be long-lasting.
“They face a slew of educational consequences, including repeating courses or an entire grade level. Others may find themselves relegated to alternative and disciplinary schools,” the report stated. “Unsurprisingly, they often become discouraged and their academic performance suffers, potentially putting a high school diploma farther out of reach.”
To counteract these outcomes, the authors recommend that states move away from a youth prison model altogether – as California is doing – and instead invest in services to support young people who have committed crimes within their communities. Juvenile detention facilities “are fundamentally unsuited for fostering education success,” they wrote.
New York City is flagged in the education report as an example of progress. Its Close to Home program has virtually eliminated problems with transferring credits from lockups to home schools that other parts of the country still experience. High- and low-security pretrial detention facilities also offer this seamless curriculum.
The arrangement made it “so much easier to have credits go on the transcript record in the same system, which is key to keeping kids in school and on the path toward graduation,” Yuster of Advocates for Children told the report authors.
Yet New York appears to be the exception. Too many youth who are sent to distant detention facilities still have trouble when the time comes to transition back to large urban school districts, said David Domenici, who was the founding principal at a school run by the Washington, D.C., Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and now leads the nonprofit Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings.
“Often people don’t know each other,” he added, “and they’re far away, so they can’t go visit schools and have a meeting with the right people.”
Domenici said he and his staff addressed the problem by working closely with public schools in Washington, D.C. “We’re physically in proximity, we have regular meetings, and that makes a big difference. Any kid that was going to leave had a team, and their mission was to work with us to help kids get into a solid school where they have a fair shot here in D.C.”
Making such transition teams standard was another of the report’s key recommendations. It calls for legislation that would require juvenile justice facilities, school districts and social service agencies to work together to develop reentry plans for youth as soon as they enter a detention center.
The report also urges juvenile justice detention facilities to offer credit-bearing classes that fulfill graduation requirements and designate a transition coordinator to support returning youth.
School districts, in turn, should accept credits for work completed at any detention facility.
Michael Umpierre, director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, underscored the importance of such collaborations.
“Juvenile justice system staff and their partners must have a clear and relentless commitment to promoting education for youth in custody,” he said, “from the point of facility admission through community reentry.”