As I scan social media this week, I’m met with many “milestone” pictures of children on their way back to another year of school. There are many common threads among these photos,—new shoes, new uniforms, new hairstyles, new smiles with missing teeth, new teachers to learn from and new friends to meet, new books to read and new school buildings to navigate. But to a tee—all the pictures signify the start of something new and exciting-with parents who tenderly comment on how hard it is to watch their children grow up so fast.
Interspersed among these delightful “back to school” pictures, a quieter and unhappier thread is also unspun. It’s the stories of children who won’t be returning to school this week; those who have been locked up as adults and housed in facilities where rehabilitation and their future aren’t a priority; where punishment reigns over childhood. It’s the story of Miriam Abdullah in Arizona, who died of suicide in an adult jail shortly after her 18th birthday-she had been there since she was 16-and in isolation since March. It’s the headline that Brendan Dassey’s case was reversed, after ten years of incarceration and being locked up in an adult facility since he was 16. It’s the finding from an appellate court in Wisconsin that upholds the decision to try the two young girls (age 12 at arrest) as adults who acted on auditory hallucinations of a fictional character, Slenderman, telling them to harm their friend.
Juvenile justice systems were created to rehabilitate children, which means their staff are trained to work specifically with youth. It is a system, that when run well, balances public safety with rehabilitation—an approach that is supported by the vast majority of people across the country. It means that children under the care of the juvenile justice system have access to education and recreation while incarcerated; that family engagement is considered part of treatment; that mental health and substance abuse treatment is provided to those youth who need it. That the system sees their role as temporary, and understands the real work of changing lives takes place in the context of home and community.
This is not so in the criminal justice system, that was created to punish adults for breaking the law. Youth who are transferred to criminal court do not fare well. Beyond their exposure to violence and vulnerability to sexual and physical assault or lengthy isolation, children in adult facilities lack access to even basic education. In the rare case that education is offered (11% of jails offer education opportunities) in the months or years that youth are pending trial, it is often only GED preparation; while if they were held in a juvenile facility, they could continue earning high school credits. For those who managed to finish high school before their arrests, they could use PELL Grants to take a college class if detained in a youth facility—outside of a small handful of pilot programs, this opportunity would not be provided to youth in the adult system. Despite the fact that research has shown that access to education is a key factor in reducing recidivism, youth who sit in adult jails and prisons receive no such benefit.
In December 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which includes new provisions to strengthen correctional education for youth in juvenile facilities and eligible adult correctional institutions. Under ESSA, State Education Agencies will receive federal funding if they submit a complete state plan with procedures to evaluate the educational needs of youth in these facilities, better coordinate the transfer of student records and credits, improve reentry planning, and help youth re-enroll back into school or an alternative program upon release. Unlike juvenile facilities, adult correctional facilities are a lot less likely to meet ESSA eligibility requirements, because far fewer adult facilities provide at least 15 hours of educational programs to youth.
So, as we start another school year, I ask state governors and legislatures to review their transfer and certification laws in order to serve youth in the juvenile justice system where they are guaranteed greater access to appropriate services. I also ask citizens to contact their State Education Agency and their State Board of Education, and demand a strong education plan and sound procedures for incarcerated youth under Title I Part D of ESSA. Research shows that keeping justice-involved youth engaged in their academics reduces recidivism and results in better reentry outcomes. Not only will action on this issues keep your communities safer, but you will provide a second chance to a young person. In the famous words of the UNCF, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”