Answer: Because an incarcerated youth’s mind is a terrible thing to waste.
After reviewing several articles recently, I am convinced that many people throughout our nation would rather we not spend a dime to educate or rehabilitate a criminal. Clearly, we fail to realize that many criminals will return to their communities or relocate to a new setting and the more idle time they have on their hands while they are incarcerated, the more opportunities they have to continue down the paths that led them to be incarcerated.
On December 8, 2014, our government made an astounding announcement – not a discovery – but I celebrate the proclamation made by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder – that incarcerated youth deserve a high quality education. Some people don’t realize that when youth are locked up or in “juvy” that they should be receiving an education. Some might argue that their own public schools are failing so why should “those bad kids” get the resources from “our schools?” These thoughts demonstrate an ignorance that must be schooled. All public agencies responsible for educating youth receive public funding. This includes traditional public schools, public charter schools, public alternative schools, and educational services that provide educational programs for incarcerated youth. The monies are allocated and distributed, so it’s not a matter of – “Well, if they didn’t spend the $2,000 on that incarcerated youth’s education, my child in Public School ABC could have gotten a SMARTboard.” The money is there, so as Americans, we must hold our government and state and educational agencies accountable to ensure that the allocated monies are being used appropriately.
When incarcerated youth are warehoused – remain locked up without receiving an educational program – we are doing the youth and society an injustice. Although the majority of youth are significantly academically behind their peers in the “free” world, we do have students across our nation who are academically astute – who were taking honors courses and excelling in school. We even have students who received their GED and high school diplomas before they were adjudicated or while they were incarcerated who are sitting in the same classrooms merely passing time with their school bound peers. Why are we doing this to our children? Because they’ve committed a crime? I guess this demonstrates our nation’s commitment to the biblical principle – an eye for an eye – commit a crime and have a crime committed to you.
Sure, there are pockets of juvenile justice facilities where people are doing the best they can to provide the incarcerated youth with what they need to be successful. However, until we are clear what is needed and certainly until we as a nation are more educated about this topic to help ensure we have more victories in this area, we will continue to succumb to this downward trajectory, just like incarcerated youth who end up being warehoused instead of rehabilitated. It’s more than just about recidivism – it’s about our own beliefs and understanding about what should happen to someone who commits a crime, about what we believe should happen to people within our society and how we value human lives.
So, why spend money to educate incarcerated youths’ minds? Because while they are incarcerated, they are a captive audience. Sure, they still have to worry about peer pressure and some still have to play that “I ain’t smart role” that we come to know so well, particularly in urban schools; but so many of their typical distractions are removed – most are in a single gendered setting, without cell phones, and they can’t just walk out of their classrooms if or when they feel frustrated. As long as they are in school, which unfortunately is not a given – with the focus of the juvenile justice staff being safety and security. If too many juvenile justice staff are absent, it’s possible that school is cancelled; and some students might miss school, go significantly late or not show up at all if they have a scheduled court appearance, have to go to the doctor; or in the even more unfortunate cases, which demonstrates a clear disregard for education, if the juvenile justice staff decides that the youth need to stay on the unit or in the kitchen on clean up duty, or simply because they don’t want to go to school.
Getting them in the classrooms each day may be an obstacle in itself, but the next most important hurdle is for the juvenile justice educators to provide each youth with a high quality education. This is very challenging because many of the juvenile justice educators I’ve spoken with have never had any preparatory courses, professional development sessions, or even webinars on what it means to be a juvenile justice educator. They have had to figure out for themselves how they should teach reading or math to students in classrooms that often have more than a five-year grade level span with a wide range of academic strengths and challenges.
There truly is much to be done in this area – but the first most important step is an acknowledgement of this need – and that is why I celebrate our government’s announcement. Although it came one hundred and fifteen years after the first juvenile justice court was established in the United States, it demonstrates a much-needed commitment, or perhaps recommitment, to our nation’s most marginalized youth. We must continue the conversations – for the sake of our incarcerated youth, our juvenile justice educators, our juvenile justice staff, and our society.