Education Behind Bars: A Review of Educational Services in Juvenile Correctional Facilities


Youth in the juvenile justice system have a right to education comparable to the one found in traditional public schools. However, the literature indicates that this is not reality. In 2015, the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that only 13 states provide youth with the same educational services available in the community. Furthermore, only eight states do so for both academic and vocational services. Inadequate special educational services, sub-par curriculum, uncertified teachers, and limited access to advanced mathematics and science courses are only a few of the many issues faced by youth in juvenile correctional education programs. The local and state governments should hold juvenile facility schools accountable for providing the same access to education and vocational programs like those available to non-incarcerated youth. In addition, government officials should ensure that juvenile correctional education curricula meet federal and state standards, including obtaining comparable nationally recognized accreditation for educational and vocational programs.


Approximately 48,000 youth are confined in juvenile and adult correctional facilities on any given day in the United States (Sawyer, 2019). Research suggests that juvenile correctional education programs can enhance youths’ social, cognitive, and life skills after their release from a juvenile correctional facility (Ho & Rocheleau, 2020). The Council of State Governments Justice Center (2015) provides one of the most recent, comprehensive, and frequently cited publications related to education among justice-involved youth (Cater, 2018; Development Services Group, 2019; Miller, 2019; Tannis, 2017; Weaver, 2017). Therefore, it would be negligent not to cite this publication when discussing correctional education in the juvenile justice system. According to The Council of State Governments Justice Center (2015), the most critical need for education exists maybe among incarcerated youth. Yet, their situation makes them especially challenging to serve.

Adolescents in the juvenile justice system have a statutory right to a publicly funded education comparable to their counterparts in traditional public schools (Development Services Group, 2019; Steele et al., 2016). In addition, the educational services in juvenile residential facilities are subject to federal civil rights laws such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (Development Services Group, 2019). Juveniles placed in detention centers and residential placement facilities cannot attend schools within their communities. Therefore, juvenile correctional facilities are obligated to provide educational services for these youth (Steele et al., 2016). The existing literature provides insights into students’ characteristics in juvenile correctional education programs, the quality and standards, and the availability of academic support (Development Services Group, 2019).

The administration and delivery of education vary by state and facility type. In some jurisdictions, the juvenile justice system handles this responsibility, while in others, the  education department assumes this function (Development Services Group, 2019). The Council of State Governments Justice Center (2015) provided a breakdown of the entity responsible for delivering education in state-run, locally run, and privately-operated juvenile facilities in all 50 states. The juvenile justice system is responsible for overseeing education in six states, while the state or local education agency oversees education in three states. In 41 states, a combination of the juvenile justice system, department of education, and private providers administer education.


Adolescents entering the juvenile justice system have a lower academic achievement level than children in the general population (Development Services Group, 2019; National Juvenile Justice Network, 2016; Steele et al., 2016). Many adjudicated youths’ educational level rarely exceeds the elementary level (National Juvenile Justice Network, 2016; Steele et al., 2016). Although grade repetition rates vary from study to study, the Development Services Group (2019) contends that grade repetition is a common issue among justice-involved youth. The juvenile justice system is drastically overrepresented by youth with special education-related disabilities (Miller, 2019). According to the National Juvenile Justice Network (2016), an estimated 70% of juvenile offenders have learning disabilities. This claim has been corroborated by Miller (2019), who reported that between 30-70% of students in the juvenile justice system have a learning disability. The juvenile correctional education student demographic is also more likely to have emotional and substance abuse issues than youth in the general population (Steele et al., 2016). Boys comprised approximately 86% of youth held in juvenile correctional facilities in 2011, and children of racial and ethnic minorities were strikingly overrepresented (Steele et al., 2016).

Data on student experience and access to rigorous courses in juvenile correctional educational programs are often incomplete or inaccurate (Korman et al., 2019). However, the National Juvenile Justice Network (2016) argued that incarcerated youth are provided with substandard education that usually does not align with state curricula, creating issues of credit transferability for students going back to their home school districts. Federal regulations stipulate a high-quality educational program for justice-involved youth, including access to special education services and curricula that meet state requirements and accreditation standards. Unfortunately, a 2015 study found that only eight states provide incarcerated youth with access to educational and vocational programs similar to those available to their non-incarcerated peers (Tannis, 2017; The Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2015). Evidence suggests that educational outcomes among juveniles in correctional programs vary by the facility’s operational control. For instance, the Development Services Group (2019) posits that youth in state-run facilities have higher high school graduation rates and GED completion than youth in locally run facilities.

Special Education Needs

Students with learning and developmental disabilities are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system (Miller, 2019; Wiggins, 2016). Black youth are not only overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, but they also account for a disproportionate percentage of students placed in special education programs (Wiggins, 2016). The Development Services Group (2017) furthered this argument by asserting that in addition to Black youth, Native Americans, Latinos, males, and youth of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, are more likely to be diagnosed with a disability. Youth in juvenile correctional facilities are seven times more likely than students in public school settings to require special education services (Burke & Dalmage, 2016). Despite this documented prevalence of disabilities and the need for special education among justice-involved adolescents, Miller (2019) observed that the educational services needed to support juveniles with special needs are often inadequate in detention and correctional facilities. Federal policies such as the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) establish guidelines on how to treat youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the juvenile justice system (Development Services Group, 2017).

There have been numerous litigations alleging that juvenile correctional programs are not meeting state and federal mandates. For instance, Miller (2019) noted as of 2013, almost 60 lawsuits were filed about the non-compliance of juvenile facilities regarding the provisions of the IDEA, including child find, individualized education plans (IEPs), least restrictive environments, and transitional services. However, research examining strategies to increase compliance with student needs and education programs in the juvenile justice system is limited. Burke and Dalmage (2016) sought to advance the literature in this area by exploring advocacy strategies used by probation officers and the barriers they face when trying to ensure that court-involved youth receive appropriate educational support. Their study found that some advocacy strategies included documenting youth’s eligibility for special education services, collaboration with stakeholders, assertive communication, and creative advocacy. Conversely, some of the barriers included poor working relationships with schools, the older age of youth, and parent involvement obstacles.

Miller (2019) conducted a similar study with staff in a juvenile detention facility to understand how the team addressed the barriers to providing sufficient special education programming. Consistent with the existing literature, this research indicated that the studied juvenile facility experienced some common issues associated with adherence to special education in juvenile detention and correctional facilities. Still, Miller (2019) found that staff developed relationships with internal and external stakeholders and utilized creative problem-solving tactics to overcome barriers that would have otherwise limited youth’s access to special education. Furthermore, the current literature establishes that youth with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system. As a result, students with disabilities may struggle more to achieve academic success while involved in the juvenile justice system (Development Services Group, 2019). Ho and Rocheleau (2020) found that adjudicated juveniles with special education reported slightly higher recidivism rates. However, unlike the general population of juvenile offenders, their study found that education failed to predict recidivism among the sampled youth in special education programs. Therefore, juvenile correctional education administrators should comply with individualized educational plans, adhere to the least restrictive environment principles, and prioritize transitional services.

Quality and Standards

The literature on effective instructional approaches in secure juvenile confinement is limited (Development Services Group, 2019). However, existing research indicates several shortcomings. Several studies report that education in juvenile facilities may not meet the same standards as those in public school settings (Development Services Group, 2019; Korman et al., 2019; National Juvenile Justice Network, 2016; The Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2015). According to the National Juvenile Justice Network (2016), incarcerated youth are subjected to substandard education that often does not align with state curricula. In addition, the staff working in these facilities usually do not receive sufficient training on addressing the development need of this population and how to ensure continuity of education (Development Services Group, 2019). Since the administration of education in juvenile justice facilities varies by state (The Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2015), no generalized qualification standards are required to teach in these facilities. Similarly, the requirements to be a direct care staff or juvenile detention officer will vary by facility type, i.e., detention center or residential placement, and operation control, i.e., state government, local government, or private for-profit entity.

Korman et al. (2019) studied the patterns and trends of educational services for youth in juvenile justice schools using two years of data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). This study revealed several deficiencies across states that provided adequate data to the CRDC. These deficiencies indicated that: 1) students in juvenile justice schools received far lower access to advanced mathematics and science classes, 2) students in juvenile justice schools do not pass Algebra 1 at a consistently high rate like their peers in traditional schools, and 3) students in juvenile justice schools have less access to credit recovery than their peers, despite having a higher need in this area. In addition, the Council of State Governments Justice Center (2015) provides one of the most recent and comprehensive publications on educational programming quality in juvenile correctional facilities. This report indicated that only eight states (16 percent) provide incarcerated youth with comparable educational and vocational services available to youth in the community. Additionally, only 13 states (26 percent) provide confined youth equal access to educational services available to youth in the community, including credit recovery programs, GED preparation, and post-secondary courses.

Uncertified or unqualified teachers often teach students in juvenile correctional programs (Korman et al., 2019). According to these authors, many juvenile facilities do not provide adequate instructional hours to students. They posited that students in juvenile justice schools lose a day of instruction each week since they spend an average of 24 hours per week in educational programming instead of 30 hours. Furthermore, many states do not hold juvenile facility schools and educators accountable for ensuring that youth services meet state curricula standards (The Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2015). Morris (2014) posited that Black girls in a juvenile justice program in California viewed schools as a place of violence and discipline comprising disruptive students, whom teachers often fear. This study’s findings suggested that students do not perceive a juvenile court school as an extension of quality learning. For instance, several participants expressed that the learning materials were repetitive and unrelated to their future goals. Teachers were also viewed by many of the participants as punitive and uninspiring (Morris, 2014).

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice partnered to recommend five guiding principles for providing high-quality education in juvenile justice secure care settings. According to the Development Services Group (2019), these principles are as follows:

  1. Provide a facility climate that prioritizes safety and education in conditions conducive to learning and address the needs of all youth through social support services.
  2. Ensure sufficient funds allocation to facilities so that the educational opportunities for justice-involved youth meet the standards of those available to youth in the general population.
  3. Recruit and retain highly qualified teachers whose skills are relevant for working with justice-involved youth and who can positively impact youth by providing effective teaching and learning environments.
  4. Utilize rigorous and relevant curricula aligned with state academic or career and technical education standards through instructional methods and materials that prepare students for college and the workforce.
  5. Utilize formal processes and procedures to ensure successful navigation of the system and effortless transitions back into communities.

To ensure that youth in juvenile correctional education programs receive high-quality education, state and local government should: 1) require juvenile facility schools to provide the same educational and vocational services that are available in the community; 2) hold these facilities accountable for providing educational and vocational services that align with state standards; and 3) require all facilities to obtain nationally recognized accreditation for their educational and vocational programs (The Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2015).

Academic Support

Teaching in a juvenile correctional program involves unique challenges. In addition to lower academic achievements among students in juvenile justice schools, teachers face emotional and safety issues (Development Services Group, 2019; Steele et al., 2016). Still, providing youth in the juvenile justice system with quality teachers is a vital and necessary component of the educational process (Houchins et al., 2017). Unfortunately, research examining the academic support available to youth in juvenile facilities is limited. Much of the limited studies providing insights into this area were conducted more than five years ago. This deficiency in the literature points to the insufficiency of research that explores the educational experiences of justice-involved juveniles (Martin, 2017). Adolescents who have experienced a juvenile correctional educational program are perhaps in the best position to provide insights into the academic support available in these programs. Martin provided insights from students in his study of Black males in a juvenile justice school in the United States Mid-Atlantic region. The findings related to academic support from teachers were overall positive. Some participants shared that teachers made the work easier to understand, listened to their academic concerns, and built relationships and bonds with the students.

The National Juvenile Justice Network (2016) posited that youth in short-term facilities tend to receive less instructional time than adolescents in public schools. Korman et al. (2019) claimed that youth in juvenile facility schools typically receive 24 hours of instruction each week instead of 30 hours, which is standard for justice-involved youth in even a country like England (Shafi, 2019). The literature has indicated that many children in the juvenile justice system require special education services. However, many juvenile facilities fail to meet students’ needs, which has resulted in numerous lawsuits (Miller, 2019). Completing mathematics and science courses is a typical requirement for admission to college. Still, access to these courses is limited in juvenile justice schools (Korman et al., 2019). According to these authors, laboratory equipment is prohibited in facilities that prioritize safety and security. Hence, students in some states do not have access to resources that facilitate laboratories in science classes.

Fauth et al. (2019) found that teacher self-efficacy was positively related to student achievement. Therefore, teacher efficacy might influence the level of academic support provided to students in juvenile justice schools. Since teachers with high self-efficacy are likely to use class time more effectively (Weaver, 2017), students are more likely to receive the support they need from these teachers. Both teacher and student self-efficacy can affect the same motivational outcomes, and research has shown a positive relationship between teacher and student outcomes (Schunk & DiBenedetto, 2020; Zee & Koomen, 2016). Schunk and DiBenedetto (2020) asserted that further research is needed to understand how teachers and students influence each other over time and how teachers develop and maintain their and students’ self-efficacy.


            Youth entering the juvenile justice system perform at a lower educational level than their peers in the general population. Although these adolescents tend to be educationally underserved in their communities, the educational services provided in juvenile correctional facilities are not of the highest quality. Despite the higher rates of learning disabilities among this student demographics, many juvenile correctional facility schools fail to provide adequate special education services to meet these adolescents’ needs. Justice-involved youth receive less instructional time than their non-incarcerated peers and have less access to advanced mathematics and science courses. Though the Department of Education and the Department of Justice have recommended several guiding principles for delivering education in juvenile justice facilities, these facilities’ quality of educational services is lacking. It is critical for juvenile facility school administrators to embrace these recommendations and consider the perspectives of justice-involved youth who have experienced juvenile correctional education curricula.




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Dr. Deneil Christian is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of the Virgin Islands. He earned a doctorate in criminal justice from Liberty University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from Lamar University, a master’s degree in business administration from Don Bosco University, India, and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Ashworth College. Dr. Christian’s research interests include the academic achievement of juvenile offenders, alternatives to juvenile incarceration, and mental health issues in the juvenile justice system.

Categories: Corrections