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The ununited state of juvenile justice in America

For children in the United States, justice often depends on where you live, the color of your skin, which police officer arrests you, or which judge, prosecutor or probation officer happens to be involved in your case.

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Listen to our seven-part podcast series, which follows the path that America's kids take through the juvenile justice system, from childhood to freedom.

Watch the videos

Watch the videos, produced virtually through video conferencing, to see an intimate view of juvenile justice in America.

I. Entering the system

‘A disjointed system’: Policing policies fuel criminalization of youth

After decades of police reform, kids of color are still vastly overrepresented in arrests and police use of force. The little to no youth-specific training in most law enforcement departments in the U.S. fuels this, experts say.

Forced out: Schools feed the juvenile prison population

Public schools continue to feed the school-to-prison pipeline through suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests. Kids suffer the consequences.

Judged by two systems: 60% of incarcerated kids have child welfare background

Both systems are meant to support the nation’s most vulnerable children, but by working in silos experts say they push kids from one system to the other.

Street love: Why kids join gangs despite the risks of arrest and violence

At-risk children across the U.S. are exposed to a variety of factors that increase their likelihood of joining a gang, which leads to higher rates of imprisonment and violence.

II. Pivotal decisions

‘I can’t breathe’: Hidden abuse in some private detention centers

For-profit companies make millions every year with the promise of safely rehabilitating kids in the juvenile justice system, but many kids say they leave worse than when they came in.

How thousands of jurisdictions determine a young offender’s fate

Youth can face very different outcomes throughout the juvenile justice system depending on the state or the county where they live.

‘Super-predator’ legacy: How children end up in the adult justice system

Tens of thousands of kids are prosecuted as adults each year, and some serve out their sentences in prisons where most of the inmates are adults.

III. Systemic inequalities

Youth of color disproportionately represented in the justice system

Teenagers and youth across the country commit the same types of crime, but disparities affecting young people of color have continued to grow.

Native youth navigate complex, contradictory jurisdictions

Burdened by generations of historical trauma, Native youth navigate a convoluted justice system that few other children face.

‘Hit twice as hard’: Children with disabilities face onslaught of challenges

Harsh school environments and disciplinary practices often leave children with learning and behavioral disabilities more likely to be suspended, fall behind in schools and enter the juvenile justice system.

LGBTQ youth confront inconsistent, unreliable patterns of incarceration

Because of vague and inconsistent regulations, the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people in the juvenile justice system vary dramatically across the country.

IV. Dangerous patterns

Employee misconduct: The abuse and mistreatment of juveniles in lockup

Detention is supposed to rehabilitate kids, but many are abused at the hands of staff members tasked with protecting them.

‘It’s never OK’: Sexual abuse persists in juvenile facilities despite years of reform

Data shows a decline in juvenile facility sexual assaults since 2012, but the number of incidents that go unreported make experts wonder whether enough is being done.

Use of solitary confinement often arbitrary and ‘all too common’

Despite denouncements of the practice, solitary confinement is still used in nearly every state, putting juveniles at risk for physical and psychological harm.

V. Questionable practices

Age, neglect and vandalism in facilities endanger some youth, critics say

Some juvenile offenders live in prisonlike conditions that often are cramped, unsanitary, archaic and poorly ventilated, affecting their health and welfare.

Patchwork education system in juvenile centers often falls short

The lack of consistent and uniform policies, along with a dearth of available data, conceal how – or if – young people learn in juvenile detention facilities.

Juvenile COVID-19 cases found in dozens of states

COVID-19 affects the juvenile justice system with a rising number of positive cases, as juvenile detention facilities evolve their health care protocols to help slow its spread.

Nearly three-quarters of youth behind bars suffer from mental health issues

Kids in the juvenile justice system struggle with mental health issues at a rate over four times higher than the general youth population, yet they often don’t receive much-needed treatment.

VI. Lasting effects

‘A lifelong trajectory’: Three men navigate reentry after incarceration

Incarceration as a juvenile, whether for weeks or years, has a lasting impact on a former offender’s life long after their release to society.

Released juvenile lifer learns to live after 26 years in prison

Darren McCracken, 14, was tried as an adult for murdering his mother and sentenced to life without possibility of parole. He’s free now, but is struggling to find his way in a world vastly different.

A murder victim’s mother finds forgiveness after 27 years

Terrence Sampson was 12 when he murdered his friend and neighbor, Kelly Brumbelow, 31 years ago in Texas. He spent decades in prison. Now he's free. Kelly’s mother has forgiven him.

Forgotten families: Detention causes emotional, psychological and financial burdens

Imprisoning children leaves families burdened with court fees, fines and extra costs, including lifelong emotional trauma that can tear families apart.


Dig deeper into the juvenile justice system in our Extras section. Fellows wrote 35 additional background and data-driven stories, including reporting on innovative solutions.


“Kids Imprisoned,” an investigation into juvenile justice in America, is the 2020 project of the Carnegie-Knight News21 program, a multimedia reporting project produced by the country’s top journalism students and graduates.

(Photo courtesy of Google Earth)

Patchwork education system in juvenile centers often falls short

By Kimberly Rapanut, Patrick Linehan, Gabriela Szymanowska, Brody Ford and Kelsey Collesi

August 21, 2020

Children in the justice system face towering impediments to their legal right to education, often hindering the development of thousands of the nation’s most vulnerable and underserved students.

The lack of consistent and uniform policies, along with a dearth of available data, conceal how – or if – young people learn in juvenile detention facilities.

“I often like to say to administrators who are in charge of these places – particularly when I visit a facility that’s really bad – that the educational services and programs here are not something you would tolerate for any of your own children,” said Peter Leone, a professor at the University of Maryland who has spent decades evaluating and advising educational facilities in juvenile centers across the United States. 

Advocates say education for incarcerated kids isn’t comparable, let alone equal, to public education. Many say it’s nearly impossible to provide good education in an environment where children often come to class in restraints, complete homework in their cell and are closely monitored by staff members armed with tasers.

“It’s something else,” Leone said. “Kids routinely do not get homework. Routinely, they can’t take books back to their unit. Routinely, there is no quiet time in the evening to do homework.”

Multiple studies have shown that disruptions in education, irregular classroom hours and uneven learning materials also feed into a lack of academic achievement for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated youth.

Additional hurdles, such as the fragmented ecosystem of juvenile justice as a whole and a widespread belief that young offenders aren’t deserving of education, often delay improvements, said David Domenici, executive director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, a nonprofit that runs educational programs in youth facilities in 41 states.

The failure to prioritize education in detention centers also feeds into this problem, Domenici said, adding that, in many juvenile facilities, the “school becomes sort of a throwaway school.”

A fractured system, a ‘tyranny of low expectations’

After getting into a fight over his ninth grade girlfriend in San Mateo, California, Nicholas Jasso’s freshman and sophomore years of high school consisted of a month in juvenile hall followed by a year in a high security, state-run school in Northern California.

“It’s not really like an educational setting, it’s more like a system of control,” said Nicholas Jasso, about his time in the San Mateo, California, juvenile system. (Video produced by Brody Ford / News21)

“The education I received while I was under the supervision of the state was terrible,” said Jasso, now 23 and studying at UCLA. “I think it was probably more detrimental than anything.”

When he eventually got to college, Jasso said he spent a large portion of his first semester up all night and glued to his desk, learning how to write papers or developing study habits.

Researchers have found that preexisting risk factors, including negative feelings toward school and previous academic failure, pose additional challenges to teaching young people effectively in detention centers.

Low aspirations, truancy and a history of suspensions, expulsions or dropping out are also risk factors typically found in kids involved in the juvenile system, according to a 2019 review of education in the juvenile justice system by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, leaving them predisposed to brush off education.

Nicholas Jasso, who’s now studying at UCLA, had to play catch-up on the education he missed while held at Hillcrest Juvenile Hall in San Mateo, California. Project Change, a program at the College of San Mateo, helped him navigate a path to higher education. (Portrait taken remotely by Gabriela Szymanowska / News21)

Children who are English language learners or have learning or behavioral disabilities are all the more likely to fail, experts say.

The notion that failure in school justifies poor learning conditions in the system is what juvenile detention education expert Peter Leone dubs “the tyranny of low expectations.”

“The refrain you often hear is, ‘Well, you know, these kids probably failed pretty badly when they were in the public schools,’” Leone said. “That is true, but it puts the onus on the kid as opposed to saying, ‘What is it about these systems that fail to engage a chunk of kids?’”

Federal investigations into juvenile facilities have shown that incarcerated children, particularly those with learning disabilities or on individualized learning plans, received inadequate education, according to formal complaints and findings from the U.S. Department of Justice.

These findings include detention centers failing to promptly obtain students’ individualized education plans and discontinuing their special education, according to official documents.

Youth of color or kids who are poor make up a majority of those entering juvenile centers, said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, adding that these youngsters almost always have had a bad experience with school.

“When youth end up in the juvenile justice system, it’s often because every other system or structure that we have has really failed them,” Rodriguez said. “That’s what you see for our young people who are there.”

To pass the time while incarcerated in Berks County, Pennsylvania, Angelise Sanchez taught herself geometry. (Video produced by Gabriela Szymanowska / News21)

Despite higher academic needs, students in juvenile justice schools also have fewer options and ways to make up failed classes, making it harder for them to catch up, according to a 2019 analysis of federal data by Bellwether Education Partners, an education and research nonprofit.

One of the study’s authors, senior analyst Max Marchitello, said kids in juvenile facilities “have to pay this additional cost of loss in educational opportunities,” which he called double punishment.

A 2016 Department of Education report on schools in the juvenile justice system, the most recent of its kind, was based on 2013-14 data and found that centers offer 26 hours of class time per week, four fewer hours than their public school equivalents.

Classes, particularly higher-level ones, were offered less frequently, the report found. For example, physics was offered at just 8% of schools under the juvenile justice system compared with 60% of public high schools.

“It’s the one area of education – sort of everything else has moved to having a lot of accountability and focus on excellence – this area has just stayed the same,” Rodriguez said.

A missed opportunity

Education is viewed as one of the most useful ways to help offenders, especially for students who weren’t engaged during school.

“Education while kids are juveniles in confinement can be such an opportunity – it can be an incredible learning opportunity,” said Carolyn Fink, a professor at the University of Maryland whose work and teaching has primarily centered on special and correctional education.

Sometimes, Fink said, when a student is placed in the right setting, that child’s whole attitude toward academics and their future can shift.

“There are great success stories,” she said. “So it’s maddening to me that it’s so under-resourced because it (has such) potential for huge student improvement for students who really need it.”

Providing an equal education for incarcerated young people comes with an additional set of obstacles due to their unique needs, said Sarup Mathur, a professor at Arizona State University whose research on correctional education is widely cited.

“Their needs are very different. Sometimes they have to go to individual therapy. Sometimes they have to receive substance abuse treatment,” she said, adding that accommodating all these factors can be difficult in detention.

Increased transparency, along with more substantial data, could be driving factors in helping craft a comprehensive picture of what education for incarcerated children looks like, said Hailly T.N. Korman, a senior associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners.

More data and better data would do two critical things, Korman said, the first being heightened accountability for facilities and the second being a method to see which models are working.

Mohammad Lum asked, “Is this really school?” while incarcerated in Davidson County, Tennessee. (Video produced by Brody Ford / News21)

A 2019 review of education in the juvenile justice system from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, citing studies from 2011 and 2014, stated that, “Youth who do achieve higher levels of education while in the juvenile justice system are more likely to experience positive outcomes in the community once released.”

But the juvenile justice system leaves many unprepared to return to school after incarceration, if they return at all. Sixty-six percent do not return to school after release from custody, according to a 2016 report from the National Juvenile Justice Network.

After eight years of working in a high school in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles, one high school math teacher acknowledged that it’s obvious when a student has just come from a juvenile detention center.

When returned to a normal classroom setting, children who’ve been to juvenile detention camp usually express themselves in two ways, said the teacher, whose name is not being used to maintain the privacy of students.

The first is acting very quiet and withdrawn, the teacher said, explaining that in this case, while the child isn’t outwardly rude or disrespectful, they tend to not ask questions even if they’re agitated or frustrated over an assignment.

“They kind of feel like everything’s over their head, everything’s above them, they’re not going to get anything, nothing is going to make sense,” the teacher said. “If you spent most of eighth grade in camp while everybody else was learning, of course you’re going to come into school feeling like you probably don’t get it.”

Alternatively, a student just out of detention may decide not to try and potentially stop attending class, the teacher said.

“They feel stupid, but they will never say, ‘I feel stupid.’ They’ll just say, ‘This doesn’t matter. This is stupid. I don’t care about this. This is dumb,’” the Watts teacher said. “So they come in with this bravado of, ‘Now this is all stupid, why would you guys pay attention to this?’”

The transition to a traditional high school environment was “definitely a shock,” said Jasso, who served detention as a ninth grader in San Mateo.

While Jasso received weekly counseling and did improve his grade point average by his senior year, he said he still felt unprepared to tackle essays and other assignments outside the classroom.

“There was structure, but there wasn’t really structure, right?” Jasso said of his classes at the state-run detention school he attended for a year. “We were learning things but we weren’t really learning things, right? I think that did more harm than good in the long term because when I eventually got to college I had so much catching up to do.”

Jasso agrees that low expectations are part of the problem.

“The system that’s in place doesn’t anticipate people going to higher education,” he said. “It doesn’t anticipate people going past their GED or high school diploma because that’s just been the case for a long time.”

Teaching and reaching students behind bars

Helena Flores of Travis County, Texas, started working in juvenile detention facilities when she was pursuing her doctorate in school psychology at Indiana University, eventually making stops as a volunteer in a high-security prison and an all-girls correctional facility. 

Flores, who recently earned her Ph.D., now researches juvenile correction education. She said the lack of support for educators in juvenile detention facilities may be pushing away those most passionate about making a difference.

“We tell our kids they need to be challenged so that their brains can grow and develop,” Flores said. “We have to do the same things for our teachers.”

The task of fixing education for these kids is “complex and difficult,” said Korman of Bellwether Education Partners, especially considering that educators and administrators are often under-resourced.

“What do you wish the world knew about you?” That’s the question posed to incarcerated young people in Nampa, Idaho, by News21 in collaboration with Cindy Orr, education programs director at Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections. Names are redacted for privacy purposes. (Document courtesy of Cindy Orr)

“There are people out there that are doing it well, and we can’t find them because they don’t have any data,” Korman said. “The only stories that we read are about the programs with the charismatic principal or the well-connected executive director – and not about all the teachers and principals with their heads down doing really good work every day.”

Educators often have another classroom hurdle to overcome in reaching students: childhood trauma suffered by many students. 

That trauma can be intensified just by being incarcerated, said Angela Porter, education unit supervisor in the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families. 

But understanding how to handle trauma in detention center classrooms benefits both students and teachers, said Porter, who brought several training sessions on handling kids with social and emotional issues to Delaware detention centers.

The winding road of reentry

Lack of access to career or trade opportunities while incarcerated also hinders the future success of young people once they exit the juvenile justice system, leaving many unprepared to enter the workforce or pursue higher education, according to a report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Oregon and Idaho are among those states that incorporate vocational programs in juvenile centers, teaching young adults the skills they need to enter such fields as cosmetology or construction.

At the Wyoming Girls School, Elizabeth Kemp had an experience different than most kids in detention centers. (Video produced by Gabriela Szymanowska / News21)

Nearly 50 vocational and work opportunities are available for Oregon youth, with certification options ranging from hair styling to welding.

“If a youth decides to move to another state somewhere down the road, those certifications walk with them,” said Tracie Hightower, the education services coordinator at Oregon Youth Authority. 

“We try to make sure that everything that we do transfers out,” Hightower said.

Nationally, this type of training is uncommon.

A 2015 survey of all state juvenile correctional agencies in the U.S. found that only eight states provided educational and vocational services that were equivalent to those offered in public schools.

Standardizing these services, among other recommendations, “will ensure that the delivery of education is equitable and increase the likelihood that all incarcerated youth make progress toward college and career readiness upon release,” the survey concluded.

Students at all three of Idaho’s state-run facilities split their learning time between a classroom and a career technical class, said Cindy Orr, education program director for the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections. Young adults are offered work opportunities in such occupations as woodworking, farming and construction, she said.

“We work really hard to help them see that they can learn, that they are talented, that they have the ability to do it, and then provide them the tools and teach them skills that would help them advocate for themselves so that they understand how they learn and how they can communicate that with their future teachers,” Orr said.

McLaughlin High School in Anchorage, Alaska, is housed in a juvenile facility for male and female detainees. Students painted a mural that expressed their ideas about what it means to grow up in Alaska today, wrote and presented their stories and participated in an art night at a local studio. (Photos courtesy of Saundra Senior)

Porter said Delaware offers culinary, personal finance and visual media classes in its detention centers. She would like to see the state offer a wider variety of classes that kids would enjoy and that would help them find career paths, such as cosmetology, construction skills and music production. 

But there are hurdles. 

“Those programs are expensive, and I know they require a lot of equipment and some of them require a lot of space, which may be challenging for us,” Porter said.

The push to ease the reentry of young people after incarceration is one that’s just begun to gain traction with federal reports and guidance, said Mathur, the ASU researcher.

“It’s only recently that we have published these findings and have started to make policy briefs about these findings,” she said. “We are hoping that people will start to understand the importance of that.”

Experts and administrators agree that education is a necessity in preparing some of the nation’s most vulnerable students for life beyond incarceration, but setbacks in equalizing the patchwork system is difficult, tedious and harder than most realize.

“I really feel like we’re their last chance to demonstrate that they can learn, that they’re special, and that they have that ability,” Orr said.

Kelsey Collesi and Kimberly Rapanut are Buffett Foundation fellows, and Gabriela Szymanowska is a John and Patty Williams fellow.

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Carnegie-Knight News21
Carnegie Corporation of New York
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