The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice


Juvenile Correctional Education Programs

The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice


The case for quality education in juvenile correctional facilities

More than 125,000 youth are in custody in nearly 3,500 public and private juvenile correctional facilities in the United States (Snyder, 1998). The majority of youth enter correctional facilities with a broad range of intense educational, mental health, medical, and social needs. Large numbers of incarcerated juveniles are marginally literate or illiterate and have experienced school failure and retention (Center on Crime, Communities, and Culture, 1997). These youth are also disproportionately male, poor, minority, and have significant learning and/or behavioral problems that entitle them to special education and related services.

Because education is critical to rehabilitation for troubled youth, it is considered the "foundation for programming in most juvenile institutions" (OJJDP, 1994, p. 129). Helping youth acquire educational skills is also one of the most effective approaches to the prevention of delinquency and the reduction of recidivism. Literacy skills are essential to meet the demands of a complex, high-tech world in school and at work. Higher levels of literacy are associated with lower rates of juvenile delinquency, re-arrest, and recidivism.

While illiteracy and poor academic performance are not direct causes of delinquency, empirical studies consistently demonstrate a strong link between marginal literacy skills and the likelihood of involvement in the juvenile justice system. Most incarcerated youth lag two or more years behind their age peers in basic academic skills, and have higher rates of grade retention, absenteeism, and suspension or expulsion. For example, a national study found that more than one-third of youth incarcerated at the median age of 15.5 adolescents read below the 4th grade level (Project READ, 1978).

The negative consequences of marginal literacy extend beyond the greatly heightened risk for incarceration among adolescents. The rate of poverty among those in the labor force without a high school diploma is approximately three times that of high school graduates (U. S. Department of Labor, 1997; William T. Grant Foundation, 1989). Eighteen to twenty-three year olds least proficient in the basic skills of reading and mathematics are more likely to be unemployed, living in poverty, and not enrolled in any type of schooling.

Despite compelling evidence that increased literacy skills promote prosocial outcomes, education programs in many juvenile correctional facilities are inadequate. Appropriate educational services in juvenile corrections may not be a priority when the school program and security functions have to compete for limited resources.

Unfortunately, the lack of attention to the educational rights of delinquent youth is part of a disturbing trend in corrections to provide youth with minimal services. In recent years, advocates have initiated class-action litigation to challenge inadequate educational practices in juvenile correctional facilities in over 20 states (Leone & Meisel, 1997). Although rates of juvenile offending continue to decline (Snyder, 1999), the media?s negative portrayal of troubled youth distorts the extent and nature of delinquency and may also erode public support for correctional education programs. While many jurisdictions struggle to implement appropriate education programs in juvenile corrections, quality education services are provided to incarcerated youth in some states.

Youth with Disabilities are Overrepresented in Juvenile Corrections

Approximately 10 percent of youth are identified as disabled and in need of special education by public school systems nationally. In contrast, 30 to 50 percent of incarcerated youth have disabilities (Casey & Keilitz, 1990; Murphy, 1986). In other words, the prevalence of youth with disabilities is three to five times greater in juvenile corrections than in public school populations. This troubling phenomenon, called overrepresentation or disproportionate representation, occurs most frequently among incarcerated youth with emotional or behavioral disorders (EBD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities (LD), and mild mental retardation (MR) (Rutherford, Bullis, Anderson, & Griller, 2000). These disabilities often occur together. Other disabilities including traumatic brain injury and speech and language disorders are found among incarcerated youth but are less common.

Establishing actual prevalence rates for disabling conditions in juvenile corrections is difficult and the reasons for overrepresentation of youth with disabilities in correctional settings are complex. There have been no recent, large-scale, representative studies of the prevalence of disabilities in the juvenile justice system. Access to records and differences in assessment practices in various jurisdictions are among the formidable barriers to confirming prevalence within juvenile corrections.

Disabling conditions do not cause delinquent behavior. However, some behaviors associated with disability may also be associated with delinquent behavior. Researchers and advocates have advanced various understandings about the link between disability and delinquency. Some suggest that youth with disabilities may be more susceptible to engaging in delinquent behavior than their non-disabled peers. Others propose that child-serving agencies are more likely to identify youth with disabilities as delinquent and to refer them to the juvenile justice system. Regardless of the specific approach, the overrepresentation of youth with disabilities in correctional facilities is consistently associated with school failure, marginal literacy, poorly developed social skills, and inadequate school and community supports (Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford, 1986; Leone & Meisel, 1997).

Academic Programs in Juvenile Corrections

While the majority of detained and committed youth have severe to moderate skill deficits, and prior school experiences marked by truancy, suspension, and expulsion, others may be performing at or above grade level. As a result, juvenile correctional education programs should provide the following comprehensive range of options:

  • Literacy and functional skills for students with significant cognitive, behavioral, or learning problems;

  • Academic courses associated with Carnegie unit credits for students likely to return to public schools or who may earn a diploma while incarcerated;

  • General Educational Development (GED) preparation for students not likely to return to public schools; and

  • Pre-vocational and vocational education related to student interests and meaningful employment opportunities in the community.

Problems implementing quality academic programs within juvenile corrections are frequently associated both with characteristics of incarcerated youth, and with the operation of the facilities themselves. Youth enter correctional settings with skill deficits, behavior problems, and substance abuse issues that present difficulties in educational programming. At the same time, juvenile correctional institutions often have limited capacity to support appropriate educational interventions for the youth confined to their care and custody. Major systemic impediments include overcrowding, insufficient fiscal resources, ineffective governance structures, isolation of correctional schools from education reform practices and from public schools, inadequate transition and aftercare services, and lack of collaboration with treatment and security components within the juvenile facility.

Special Education in Juvenile Corrections

Although incarcerated youth eligible for special education services are entitled to the same substantive and procedural rights afforded to youth in public schools, correctional facilities have been slow to respond to the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and other applicable laws. In the twenty-five years since the passage of the IDEA, the predominant concern in public schools has shifted from providing access to special education services to ensuring quality outcomes for youth with disabilities. In contrast, providing basic access to adequate special education services continues to be problematic in many juvenile correctional facilities, for several reasons.

Special education services in juvenile corrections are implemented in the larger context of general academic and vocational programs. Moreover, juvenile correctional education programs may fail to adequately educate youth with disabilities when they lack effective processes to screen, evaluate, and identify youth for special education; implement instructional strategies to address learning or behavioral problems; involve parents, guardians, or surrogates; implement appropriate instructional strategies to address learning or behavioral problems; and organize transition services for youth released to the community. In addition, accommodations for youth with disabilities are not always implemented in the school . Youth with disabilities who do not receive appropriate special education and related services may be more vulnerable to exclusion from school for alleged disciplinary infractions in the correctional education program and within the larger institution.


Casey, K., & Keilitz, I. (1990). Estimating the prevalence of learning disabled and mentally retarded juvenile offenders: A meta-analysis. In P. E. Leone (Ed.), Understanding troubled and troubling youth (pp. 82-101). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Center on Crime, Communities, and Culture (1997). Education as crime prevention. Occasional Paper Series No. 2: New York: Author.Leone, P. E., & Meisel, S. (1997). Improving education services for students in detention and confinement facilities. Children?s Legal Rights Journal, 71 (1), 2- 12.

Murphy, D. M. (1986). The prevalence of handicapping conditions among juvenile delinquents. Remedial and Special Education, 7(3), 7 - 17.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (1994). Conditions of confinement: Juvenile detention and corrections facilities. Washington, DC: Author.

Rutherford, R. B., Nelson, C. M., & Wolford, B. I. (1986). Special education programming in juvenile corrections. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 27-33.

Snyder, H. N. (1999). Juvenile arrests 1998. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Snyder, H. N. (1998). Juvenile arrests 1997. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Wolford, B., Purnell, B., & Brooks, C. C. (2000). Educating youth in the juvenile justice system. Richmond, KY: National Juvenile Detention Association.

Project READ. (1978). To make a difference. In M. S. Brunner (Ed.), Reduced recidivism and increased employment opportunity through research-based reading instruction (pp. XX). Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (NCJ Publication No. 141324).

U. S. Department of Labor (1997). Profile of the working poor. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

William T. Grant Foundation (1989). The Forgotten Half: Non-College Youth in America. Washington, DC: Author.

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