04/28/2014 04:48 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2014

It's About Education, Stupid!

In a recent editorial, the New York Times decried our failure to educate incarcerated youth placed in juvenile justice facilities. Citing a recent report by the Southern Education Foundation, the editorial noted "nearly two-thirds of the young people who were confined in 2010 were confined for nonviolent offenses... and that fewer than one in 10 earned a high school diploma or a G.E.D. This makes it unlikely that most of them will succeed at school once they are released and more likely that they will get in trouble again." Given that 100% of children incarcerated by the juvenile justice system will eventually return to their communities (jurisdiction of the juvenile court ends when the child reaches a certain age) our failure to provide even basic education or job training is especially shameful. It turns out that taxpayers are paying billions for incarceration each year merely to ensure academic failure and decrease public safety.

Our inattention to the educational needs of incarcerated school age youth is not new, however, and it is not limited to youth serving time in the juvenile justice system. Twenty years ago, in response to a national panic over a coming generation of teenage "super predators," we passed laws that made sure most of these so-called super-predators would spend a substantial amount of their lives in adult prisons. While our hysteria was unfounded (because it was based on flawed research by criminologist John DiIullio, among others), elected officials were quick to seize the moment, quickly enacting pre-emptive legislative "fixes." Mr. DiIullio eventually apologized for causing such an epic - but mythical - scare, but the damage was done.

That damage included a swelling population of children and teens in adult prisons and jails - institutions where educational programming was called "adult education" and meted out in 2 or 3 hour blocks per week. Prisons and jails were ill-prepared to meet the educational needs of this influx of school age youth in their midst, who needed several hours of education per day to ensure successful re-entry. And while some adult inmates do not return home, 95% of them do. This means that even those youth prosecuted and sentenced as adults were likely to come home, at some point. So as we have continued to send kids off to adult prisons and jails, we have ignored the education and training needs of this population of youth who must also be prepared for their eventual exit from the justice system.

We have not only failed youth who are sent to adult correctional facilities. The recently released Southern Education Foundation report focuses on the failure of the juvenile justice system to provide effective educational opportunities for the children committed to its care. While the juvenile justice system still claims rehabilitation as its primary goal, achievement of that goal is impossible if youth emerge from that system older but no wiser, having fallen far behind their academic peers back home. Placing a 19-year-old back in 8th grade is also not the answer; such educational mismatches explain why, on average, approximately two-thirds of youth who exit the juvenile justice system fail to return to school. That high drop out rate among formerly incarcerated youth plays a substantial role in the high recidivism rates for youth in the juvenile justice system, which fails to prevent re-offending more than 50% of the time. Imagine a business model that continues to pour money into an enterprise that fails more often than it succeeds at meeting it's core goal; few would tolerate routine failure at such levels.

There are examples of sound educational programs operating within juvenile facilities or working to facilitate more effective re-enrollment when youth leave institutional care. David Domenici and James Forman pioneered thoughtful correctional education at the Maya Angelou Academy at Washington D.C.'s New Beginnings juvenile justice facility. The Pennsylvania Academic & Career/Technical Training (PACTT) Alliance transformed education inside the state's public and private residential programs for delinquent youth. PACTT also revolutionized what we used to call "vocational education" by linking youth to certificate programs that prepare them for jobs in their home communities.

In early 2013, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, five organizations - Juvenile Law Center, Open Society Foundations, PACTT, the Racial Justice Initiative, and the Robert F. Kennedy Juvenile Justice Collaborative - convened key stakeholders in eight listening sessions across the country to learn more about the challenges of providing quality correctional and reentry education and career/technical training for young people.

These listening sessions convened over 100 community leaders and experts from the education, justice, and youth advocacy fields, at meetings held in Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, Washington, DC, and Chicago, as well as at the Correctional Education Association Director's Forum. These discussions provided rich information about frontline barriers to correctional and re-entry education, promising practices, and supportive policies.

The listening sessions led to 20 policy recommendations to the federal government and states, summarized at The recommendations sought to achieve the following goals:

• Improve the quality and availability of educational programs, including special education, programs for English language learners, and career/technical training for young people in juvenile and adult correctional settings;
• Improve access to quality education including post-secondary education and career/technical training, and necessary supports for young people re-entering the community from secure facilities; and
• Improve cross-system collaboration and appropriate information-sharing that facilitates full access to quality education, career/technical training, and necessary supports.

Evidence of the benefits of investing in these youth mounts. The connection between education and employment, emotional and social stability and civic engagement are well known. At a time of increased awareness about the economic waste caused by over-incarcerating non-violent (and in some cases mentally ill) individuals, ignoring the educational and training needs of youth committed to correctional institutions leads to a steep cost we cannot afford. Penny wise but pound foolish policies are never sound policies. We need to stop and ask ourselves why are we willing to continually invest billions of taxpayer dollars each year in a system that so clearly fails in its mission?