Invest in Educating Juveniles Now, or Pay For It Later

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I have spent much of my career in search of effective evidence-based correctional practices for delinquent youth. Quite bluntly, this search was largely unsuccessful until 1998, when I became involved in Florida’s court-ordered efforts to improve their education services and outcomes for the state’s incarcerated youth. 

Now, after nearly 15 years of real progress, I am gravely concerned that much of the progress made in my state and others will unravel in the near future.

The project, the Juvenile Justice Educational Enhancement Program (JJEEP), was charged with assistance and annual quality assurance of the education services provided to 10.000 youth on any given day in Florida’s 200 residential programs for juveniles.  These youth have generally performed poorly in school and almost 50 percent of them suffer from a learning or behavior disability compared to about 15 percent of the students in public schools.

Over the subsequent years, our research documented that, despite their disproportionate educational deficiencies, quality-assured education for many incarcerated youth increased their academic achievement while incarcerated, increased the likelihood of their returning to school following release, and significantly reduced their chances of post-release re-arrest. 

Florida became recognized as a national model for other states as they implemented the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which included hiring highly qualified teachers, providing individual instruction and holding their educational practices and outcomes accountable. With the assistance of federal funding, JJEEP worked with other states in their respective efforts to successfully implement the major mandates of NCLB, which led to the development of the national Juvenile Justice Educational Alliance for the purpose of promoting evidence-based juvenile justice education policies and practices and associated accountability systems.

Progress was being made throughout the country and education was moving to the policy and practice forefront in confronting delinquency. Many incarcerated youths were experiencing academic achievement for the first time in their lives and this achievement was altering their behavior and beliefs about the future.

The country was poised for the associated realization of numerous cost effective benefits related to crime given that many of the 300,000 youth annually released from residential programs across the country were more educated and likely to return to school and less likely to be rearrested.  For example, the total economic costs for one youth dropping out of high school and then being involved in a life of crime and substance abuse is estimated to cost between $4.2 and $7.2 million.  Further, the annual cost to incarcerate one youth is just under $24,000 in contrast to the annual cost of $8,701 for educating a K-12 student.  

Now, we are in the process of erasing many of our recent juvenile justice education gains. NCLB awaits reauthorization at a time when federal funds for domestic spending are on the chopping block. Florida’s response to the NCLB impasse and the state’s budget constraints has been to terminate JJEEP and return largely to its earlier juvenile justice education practices of the 1980s that culminated in the federal consent decree known as Bobby M.  Indiana, another leading state in juvenile justice education, is in the process of consolidating juvenile justice programs and plans to privatize education to save money. 

When juvenile justice education needs are considered in relation to the needs of public schools, public schools receive priority. But such funding competition and priority is unwise for the healthy future of the country. Education of all our youth, delinquent or not, is really not an option but a necessity. It is evident from the recent reductions in juvenile justice education throughout the country that without federal leadership and the associated rewrite of NCLB – we will return to our more than a century old practice of viewing our incarcerated population of delinquents as educationally disposable, thereby continuing the pipeline of youth from reformatories to prisons. 

In the absence of the reauthorization of NCLB, the U.S. Department of Education should, at minimum, collaborate with the Juvenile Justice Educational Alliance on educating the public and state governments on the critical role and cost-effective value of evidence-based and accountable juvenile justice education. 

What the department has done following release of the fiscal year 2012 budget and critical reactions from the country’s juvenile justice community and congressional offices has been to revise “Race to the Top” funding.  The revisions have resulted in $120 million of total funding for juvenile justice practices but without specifying any funding for juvenile justice education. This is simply not comprehensible given that what works best in juvenile justice, namely evidence-based and accountable juvenile justice education, is simply falling through the cracks.

Prior experiences and research has conclusively established that investments that improve academic achievement and high school graduation rates significantly reduce crime and its staggering costs and increase economic competitiveness for both juvenile and adult offenders. Why is it that our national and state legislators and major federal and state agencies are ignoring these simple facts? We can pay a little now for education or so very much more later for ignoring the unequivocal value of education for all society’s members.