Introduction and summary
In May 2020, approximately two months into the coronavirus pandemic, a 15-year-old Black student in Detroit was re-committed to a juvenile detention facility for violating her probation1 by failing to “submit any schoolwork and getting up for school.”2 Like many other students during the pandemic, she was struggling with virtual learning because she did not have access to the support that in-person learning provided for her learning disability.3 Yet she was again separated from her community, at a time when juvenile detention facilities across the country were releasing youth to avoid the spread of the virus.4
The pandemic has presented myriad challenges for all students, including those connected to juvenile detention systems. It is unclear how many students have had experiences similar to that of the student in Michigan, given the sensitive nature of juvenile cases. Yet data show that even as the population of students committed to detention facilities has reached historic lows, in part due to health concerns related to the pandemic, the overrepresentation of Black and Latino youth in these facilities has actually worsened since 2019.5
Students involved with the juvenile detention system deserve the same support that other students are receiving in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they will need continued support as they transition back to their communities and schools.
As government officials acknowledged the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, schools across the country switched to a virtual, at-home learning format to limit the spread of the virus. In the months following, juvenile detention facilities released students to slow the spread of the coronavirus within their spaces, and admissions to facilities dropped as courts were discouraged from detaining additional youth.6 These students were released to a world in quarantine, where they could not return to their home school for in-person teaching and learning support. This was further complicated by the fact that there is no uniform standard for juvenile detention system aftercare or re-acclimating students to their community. Some incarcerated students transitioned from in-person classes to self-study packets or Zoom instruction, with limited opportunities to socialize or connect with their families.7 And other students who remained in facilities were placed in quarantine—similar to solitary confinement—to limit spread of the virus internally.8
Over the past year, several articles have focused on the needs and experiences of students in a virtual learning environment. However, much less has been written about the students in juvenile detention facilities and those returning home from them. This report highlights the needs of this student population, identifying policies that can support their successful reconnection to their home communities and ensure that the government provides adequate relief funding and other resources to provide them with the support they need.
For this report, the Center for American Progress hosted two community conversations with student leaders from the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. All participants were in long-term secure facilities in Washington state, Oregon, or Colorado; these sessions occurred in groups and were facilitated through video conferencing. The participants discussed their experiences during the pandemic and provided feedback on the support that students need to transition back to their communities. CAP also conducted a 50-state survey using phone calls and emails to connect with state employees who were responsible for overseeing education services in juvenile detention facilities or were knowledgeable about it. For the states that did not respond, the author collected relevant information from state government websites.
The report concludes with policy recommendations, informed by CAP’s community conversations and survey, on how to better support students returning home from juvenile detention facilities—particularly during the ongoing pandemic. It specifically focuses on youth who have been committed to long-term juvenile detention facilities. The recommendations include:
- Providing clear plans for students returning home from long-term detention facilities.
- Forging stronger connections between students in juvenile detention facilities and the schools to which they will return.
- Explicitly targeting COVID-19 relief resources to students returning home from detention facilities.
- Ending punitive consequences for students connected to the juvenile detention system who are struggling with school.
A snapshot of education and aftercare in the juvenile detention system
There is no explicit federal right to a free public education, although advocates argue that there should be.9 All U.S. state constitutions include a right to education, but the language ensuring that right—and its implementation—varies significantly by state.10 As a result, education has primarily been a state and local responsibility,11 although the federal government has made some attempts to set a minimum standard for education through laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),12 which sets a minimum standard for students with disabilities. Mirroring the K-12 public education system, schools in juvenile detention centers across the country are governed by state and local entities and vary in structure. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) attempted to create some uniformity by explicitly requiring states receiving federal education funding to monitor and improve education services in correctional facilities.13 The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) built on the NCLB’s provisions by expanding funding opportunities, monitoring requirements, education opportunities, and programs for reentry into community schools.14 Still, education services in juvenile detention systems are different in every state based on how the state manages those services and the resources the state provides.15 Aftercare and reentry services also differ in each state.
Education services in juvenile detention facilities
The tables in this report were compiled using information collected through a 50-state survey via email and phone. For states that did not respond to the survey, CAP collected information from state government websites; those states are noted with an asterisk. The tables highlight the overwhelming variation in how education and reentry or aftercare services are governed for students in juvenile detention centers across the country.
Table 1 categorizes CAP’s survey responses from state government employees and websites and shows that states govern education services for youth in detention centers differently. In some states, multiple entities govern education in juvenile detention facilities. The category labeled “Department of Children and Family Services or equivalent,” refers to any state agency that provides social services and resources for the benefit of children and families. The category labeled “State Department of Juvenile Justice or equivalent,” refers to any state agency responsible for juvenile corrections or detention. This is an important distinction, because a state agency may be called “Department of Youth Services” even if it exclusively serves the purpose of youth correctional services.
Education planning services for reentry and aftercare
Table 2 highlights the continuum of education services that students receive in the juvenile detention system. The survey asked whether facilities had an education plan for students when they entered the juvenile detention system that was clearly communicated to their parents or guardians and made readily accessible. The survey also asked if facilities connected with the student’s home school district to align the education plan with what they were learning in school, and if they followed up with the home school district to ensure that the district had the student’s records after their release. It is important to note that survey respondents self-reported this information, and few provided supporting documents. Respondents in most states indicated that long-term juvenile detention centers create an education plan for students when they enter the facility. Only 24 states indicated that they talked to parents about the education services that their child would receive while in the facility, and only 18 states said that they provide physical literature or an online pamphlet to parents or guardians regarding what their children will learn. Most states reported that they have a plan for students’ reentry to their home school district upon release. For example, Massachusetts assigns education and career counselors to youth depending on their home school district when they enter a facility.16 These counselors meet with students to discuss their academic plans during their stay and as they transition back to their community.17 They also create a plan for each student’s transition back to their community and identify allies and caring adults in the student’s home school who can provide support.18
Aftercare and reentry service providers
CAP’s survey also asked states which entity is responsible for providing aftercare or reentry services to students transitioning out of long-term care juvenile detention facilities. Table 3 provides a breakdown of the entities responsible for providing aftercare services for these students in each state. The purpose of this table is to show whether there is continuity between education service providers and aftercare service providers, which can include other community-based organizations, state social service agencies, or state juvenile detention system employees. It also indicates whether students receive continued monitoring by the carceral system when they return home. The correctional system category refers to parole officers, probation officers, and any employee that represents an extension of the state penal system.
Facilitating successful transitions of youth from secure facilities into their communities and adulthood requires interventions that consider their developmental needs.19 Psychological development continues into young adulthood, and adolescents are still developing the social capacities that will prepare them for life as an adult.20 The same strategies that are used to influence adult behavior may not have the same effect on youth.21 Research suggests that supervision through probation and court monitoring, group homes, and correctional facilities only has modest favorable effects on youth recidivism—the likelihood that someone will commit another offense after returning home. Programs that seek to deter behavior with a focus on discipline, surveillance, or threat of punitive consequences have no effect on recidivism on average and may actually increase it.22
However, there is evidence that juvenile recidivism can be reduced through aftercare services that take into account adolescents’ needs and provide support for reintegration into the community.23 One study of Oregon’s juvenile detention system tracked 531 formerly incarcerated youth and found that those who received appropriate aftercare services were more than three times more likely to be positively engaged in society after 12 months.24 It is clear that young people need targeted programming and support when transitioning back to their communities, including educational support, employment programs, and other social services resources.25 During a conversation with CAP, one student said that she was working with a transition specialist to prepare for her upcoming release date:26 “They’re helping me get my own apartment, they’re going to put me on [SNAP and] put me in a college.”27
Some states are modeling promising practices for others to consider:
- Nevada: The Division of Child and Family Services within the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services publishes a handbook to help family members understand available services in the juvenile detention system.28 The handbook includes contact information for various departments, describes the education services that students will receive, and provides an overview of services focused on transitioning back to the community.29
- Minnesota: In collaboration with the University of Minnesota, the state Department of Education developed a framework for creating student reentry plans.30 The framework helps increase interagency collaboration to ensure that youth have access to the services they need to successfully transition back to their schools and communities.31
- Indiana: The Department of Youth Services within the Indiana Department of Corrections employs transition coordinators at each long-term facility who work with students when they arrive and stay in contact with them up to one year after release.32 A statewide transition coordinator uses data analysis to guide facilities on necessary curriculum changes and school-based support services to create better outcomes.33
Developing and implementing a clear education continuum for youth as they enter, reside in, and transition home from a juvenile detention facility can make the difference between access to opportunity and ultimately being pushed out of school.
Although the systems to govern education in long-term juvenile detention facilities differ in every state, states can implement a number of changes to ensure that all students are given the best possible chance to succeed. This section provides state-level policy recommendations to improve pathways to educational opportunity for youth who have spent time in juvenile detention facilities.
Provide students leaving detention facilities with a clear plan to continue their education
Ensuring continuity of education for students leaving juvenile detention facilities is critical for minimizing potential gaps in their educational growth. Research shows that students often do not receive credit at their home school for work they completed while in a juvenile detention facility.34 Developing and implementing a clear education continuum for youth as they enter, reside in, and transition home from a juvenile detention facility can make the difference between access to opportunity and ultimately being pushed out of school. This is particularly important given that certain populations are disproportionately represented in juvenile detention facilities, including Black and Indigenous youth and students with learning disabilities.35 These students deserve the opportunity to continue their education and choose a path to college or career that allows them to provide for themselves and their families.
During the Obama administration, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and then-Attorney General Eric Holder released guidance outlining five key strategies for providing quality education in juvenile detention facilities, which included procedures for ensuring that students transitioning out of detention were able to smoothly reenter their communities.36 Formal transition processes better prepare students for success during reentry and can reduce their likelihood of recidivism.37 Therefore, upon a student’s admittance to a juvenile detention facility, an established reentry team should promptly create a personalized prerelease plan in coordination with the student, their family or guardians, and other specialists such as facility education staff, a community liaison, or a transition specialist.38 During this meeting, they should discuss credit accrual, credit transfer, and where the student will attend school upon release. Meetings with students with disabilities should also include the students’ individualized education plan (IEP)39 or 50440 team to ensure that their needs are incorporated in their prerelease plans.
Developing a personalized prerelease plan and revisiting it throughout a student’s residential stay can better prepare them for their transition home—particularly during the pandemic, which has resulted in a mix of in-person and virtual learning. Facilities should also provide an avenue for grievance when a prerelease plan is not properly established so that youth, parents, and guardians can ensure that facilities put one in place. By requiring facilities to have a comprehensive reentry team responsible for developing personalized prerelease plans, policymakers can improve students’ odds of transitioning smoothly back to their community and minimize gaps in instructional time for youth who have experienced detention.
Forge strong connections between students and the schools they will return to prior to release
Building a relationship between juvenile detention facilities and the schools that incarcerated students will return to is critical to ensure continuity of education services and improve the quality of education that students receive. Most of the students who participated in CAP’s community conversations expressed that there was a communication gap between the detention facility where they were placed and their home school.41 One student even said that a communication gap contributed to his current incarceration: He was reincarcerated after disengaging from school when his home district sent him to an alternative program without asking about the courses he took during his first incarceration.42
The U.S. Department of Education’s 2013–2014 Civil Rights Data Collection was the first federal inquiry into the number of educational hours provided to youth in detention facilities during the academic year. These data revealed that detention facilities offered, on average, only 26 hours per week of educational programming, and 15 percent of the facilities offered less than 20 hours of instruction per week.43 Overall, students in detention facilities receive significantly fewer hours of educational programming and classroom instruction than their peers in traditional public school settings. The quality of education provided to incarcerated youth also varies substantially. Students in juvenile detention facilities are less likely to have access to algebra I, geometry, and algebra II, which are essential courses offered in most public high schools and are often required for graduation.44 All together, these disparities leave students in detention facilities with fewer educational opportunities than their peers attending traditional public schools.45
This gap in educational services fails to prepare students in juvenile detention for the coursework necessary to receive a high school diploma. Without a high school diploma, these students will have diminished opportunities to secure meaningful employment or attend institutions of higher education. By strengthening the relationship between juvenile detention facilities and home schools, policymakers and educational agencies can better ensure that students have access to educational and economic opportunities. Collaborative, innovative partnerships between these institutions and school districts—such as those developed by some states46 and districts47 through funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education—would make it easier to ensure that students have access to classes aligned with requirements in their home school, access to credit recovery where needed, and access to the special education services to which they are entitled.48 Particularly throughout the ongoing pandemic, it is important that policymakers minimize gaps in appropriate coursework and instruction for students who have experienced detention to ensure that they have the tools necessary to secure a high school diploma or equivalent.
Include students released from secure facilities in any COVID-19 education relief
The COVID-19 pandemic presented numerous challenges for students, among them the switch to virtual learning and the hardship of social isolation. Students in detention facilities and those returning home during the pandemic felt these challenges as well, and they must be included in any coronavirus-related education relief planning. This population deserves the resources necessary to ensure that they can continue learning. In CAP’s community conversations, students expressed that most of their classes have been virtual and that this form of instruction involves very little one-on-one attention from a teacher.49 Students also mentioned that they mostly worked on individual study packets at the beginning of the pandemic,50 therefore missing out on guided instruction. In April 2021, there was a lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., on behalf of students with disabilities who were only provided with work packets throughout the pandemic.51 This student population has been particularly underserved during the pandemic52 and deserves access to compensatory education and support services to address these instruction gaps.
The American Rescue Plan (ARP), a federal coronavirus stimulus package passed in March 2021, provides funding for local educational agencies to improve the quality and availability of education services.53 It places particular emphasis on assisting students experiencing homelessness, students in foster care, students from families with low incomes, students with disabilities, English language learners, and students of color.54 ARP funding aims to address the unique challenges faced by these student populations and provides critical assistance toward increasing access to educational technology, providing evidence-based interventions, and addressing the effects of lost instructional time due to the pandemic. Unfortunately, it does not explicitly include students currently in or transitioning out of juvenile detention facilities. However, given that many of these students fall into the ARP’s explicitly identified groups, policymakers should consider using these funds to invest in resources for students in juvenile detention facilities and students transitioning back to their community.
In addition, the ARP grants local educational agencies the authority to fund interventions and programs that “respond to students’ academic, social, and emotional needs,” as well as the latitude to fund activities authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and IDEA.55 The ESEA specifically calls on state and local educational agencies to prepare plans that ensure “the timely re-enrollment of each student who has been placed in the juvenile detention system in secondary school or in a re-entry program that best meets the needs of the student.”56 Allocating resources and funding to programs that would ensure the smooth transition of students from juvenile detention facilities back to their communities is consistent and in line with the goals of the ARP.
State and local education agencies should provide:
- Additional counseling for students who spent time in a secure facility to address any coronavirus- and incarceration-related trauma they may have experienced. The ARP permits the funding of critically needed mental health services and support.57 Research indicates that approximately 40 percent to 80 percent of incarcerated juveniles already have at least one diagnosable mental health disorder,58 and these challenges have likely been significantly exacerbated by COVID-19. At the onset of the pandemic, public health experts raised concerns that the crowded conditions in correctional facilities made them hotspots for the virus; indeed, these concerns were quickly realized, with outbreaks within correctional facilities—such as the April 2020 outbreak at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Virginia—becoming commonplace.59 The trauma sustained by incarceration itself is further compounded by the trauma of experiencing an active outbreak. Moreover, communities of color and people with disabilities—some of the populations most overrepresented in youth correctional facilities—continue to bear the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic and economic crisis.60 Students who were quarantined in settings similar to solitary confinement61 also need resources to heal from that social isolation. During a CAP community conversation, one student expressed frustration about being quarantined during the pandemic:62 “It’s kind of like we’re getting punished in a way…obviously we can’t go out into society and contract the virus and bring it back…but yet when the staff [get sick] we get sanctioned for it.”63
These concurrent traumas require expanding targeted counseling services to provide an accessible and affordable way for students currently and formerly in juvenile detention facilities to process their experiences. Scaling up these services so that they are more readily available would improve students’ transition back to their schools while also making it easier for them to connect to additional services they may require for their mental health needs.
- Special education support for students who are entitled to it.64 Similarly, the ARP’s inclusion of activities authorized by IDEA means that local educational agencies should ensure that their coronavirus-related education relief policies are inclusive of students with disabilities—including incarcerated youth with disabilities, who comprise 30 percent to 60 percent of the total youth correctional population, with some estimates suggesting as much as 85 percent.65 Before the pandemic, incarcerated students with disabilities often did not receive the special education services they needed. For example, between 2012 and 2013, less than half of all incarcerated youth with a disability reported receiving special education services.66 Providing students in detention facilities with access to the educational services they are legally entitled to under IDEA and the American Rehabilitation Act reduces the likelihood that these students will be rearrested and reincarcerated within a year of their release.67 Furthermore, these students deserve access to compensatory education for any services they missed during their time in a detention facility.
- Community-based support and skills training programs. During CAP’s community conversations, students expressed interest in mentorship programs, increased vocational skills training, and exposure to potential careers.68 Under Title 1, part D of the ESEA, federal funding can be used to help students transition from secure facilities back to their communities.69 Some suggested activities for youth include seeking external mentors, seeking external peer support, and participating in community programming or employment. One example of what this could look like is the Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement—a nonprofit providing justice-involved youth with mentors who have had similar life experiences.70 This program uses a public-private partnership model and has been found to reduce recidivism.71
In addition, funding under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act can be used to provide aftercare services that increase youth engagement in the community by encouraging educational progress, job training, and consistent employment.72 Policymakers could also strengthen coordination between detention centers and vocational rehabilitation centers for students with disabilities to ensure that they have access to career pathways.
End punitive consequences for students released from juvenile detention facilities who are having a difficult time with school
Lastly, implementing policies and procedures rooted in compassion and understanding for justice-involved youth can ensure that they are better supported with the learning resources they need. Everyone is adjusting to a new normal in light of the ongoing pandemic, and many students are struggling with learning regardless of their socioeconomic or disability status. As described earlier, a 15-year-old student in Michigan having trouble adjusting to remote learning was committed back to a detention center after a judge determined that she had violated her probation. This kind of response punishes students for challenges that are out of their control. It also reinforces the harmful school-to-prison pipeline73 instead of ensuring that students with the most need have access to resources that will put them on a path to success.
Students in juvenile detention facilities deserve to learn in a productive environment with the learning supports to which they are entitled. They deserve access to coursework that will put them on track to secure a high school diploma or a career of their choice. Until policymakers can improve the quality of education services in juvenile detention, they must exercise compassion. Policymakers and school officials must remember that all students are currently struggling and keep in mind the glaring, persistent gaps in services at juvenile detention facilities across the country. Even before the pandemic, juvenile detention facilities provided students with minimal instruction time, offered limited access to classes necessary to receive a diploma, and struggled to provide reentry support for students transitioning back to their original school or district. When systems connect students with learning, social, and mental health supports, students are more likely to succeed academically and are less likely to recidivate upon release, which contributes to a pathway to stable adulthood.
As policymakers look for solutions to support students during the COVID-19 pandemic, they must remember to include students currently in and returning home from juvenile detention facilities. These students should be given the opportunity to adjust to the new normal and the support they need to successfully transition back to their schools and communities. In addition to experiencing gaps in instruction, these students may have been socially isolated and unable to connect with family during quarantine at their facility. Punishing struggling students by sending them back to a detention center is not the answer, and states should consider funding and implementing education and aftercare programs that address the specific needs of this student population.
Thank you to Sarah Figgatt, Megan Ferren, Ashley Jeffrey, and Akua Amaning for their contributions in getting this report completed. Thank you to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice for their partnership and for coordinating community conversations with their youth leaders. We appreciate Nina Salomon from the Center for State Governments Justice Center, Jasmine Miller from the Youth Law Center, and Kathy Wright from the New Jersey Parents Caucus for discussing ideas about this report. We are also grateful to Tayo Belle, Jessica Gingold, and all other reviewers who provided feedback on this report.