Jailed Youths Get Shortchanged on Education

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Winchester, Ky.

Sitting on the metal bunk in his jail cell, Tommy flips through the final pages of a "Star Wars" book and then picks up A Time to Kill, a novel about rape and murder in a small Mississippi town.

The 17-year-old, who has been charged with possession of stolen property, says he would rather be reading about world religions or the Civil War. But in the juvenile wing of the Clark County, Ky., jail, textbooks are out of reach. So are teachers and classes.

"People probably think no juvenile is serious about doing work," said the teenager, who has been awaiting trial here for seven months. "That's very untrue. I'd be willing to try."

In 1991, the nation had 64,000 young people--most between 13 and 17 years old--awaiting trial or serving time in correctional institutions, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures. And a department report released last year projects that juvenile arrests for violent crime will double by 2010.

Forty-five percent of those jailed juveniles are in facilities that don't meet minimal educational criteria set by the American Correctional Association, according to a 1993 Justice Department report.

Those juvenile facilities tend to have uncredentialed teachers, crowded classrooms, and no educational plan, says the report, which received little attention outside the juvenile-justice community.

Roughly half of all juvenile detention and correctional facilities are also in violation of state and federal laws requiring that minors receive an education, legal experts say.

Though practices vary, teachers generally are hired to work in such facilities by the local school district, the county, or the local detention or correctional institution.

For security reasons, teachers often hold classes in shifts, limiting instruction to one or two hours a day. And in facilities where there are no classrooms, teachers conduct classes in whatever space is available--even in individual jail cells.

Most programs in detention and correctional facilities haven't been approved by state education departments, and students cannot receive credit toward earning diplomas if they are transferred or released.

And though there are many excellent schools for incarcerated youths across the country, according to Dale Parent, the author of the Justice Department report, "Conditions of Confinement: Juvenile Detention and Correctional Facilities," "most programs aren't what they ought to be."

A state's regular education system may have little to do with the quality of its juvenile-justice education. In Kentucky, for example, the state has enacted significant reforms in public schools. But a federal district court in July ruled that the state had to improve its educational services for incarcerated minors.

Legal Loopholes

Juvenile-justice experts contend that nearly half of the nation's incarcerated youths lack adequate schooling for three main reasons: legal loopholes, a lack of state and local funding, and public indifference.

Each state constitution guarantees children the right to a free public education. And the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires states to offer a free, appropriate public education to all special education students until their 22nd birthdays. Fifty percent to 80 percent of all confined juveniles are eligible for such services, according to the Justice Department.

But the breakdown occurs in interpretation of these laws. Some state laws governing the rights of confined juveniles are vaguely worded, and many state and local governments have interpreted the laws to mean that one or two hours of school each day or an intermittent General Educational Development course is adequate education. In addition, many state laws aren't explicit about who bears the ultimate responsibility for schooling children who are in jail.

"State constitutions require that these kids get educated, but the statutes don't say who does it sometimes," said James Bell, a lawyer with the Youth Law Center, a San Francisco-based firm that specializes in juvenile-justice cases. "It becomes a bureaucratic hassle."

Who Should Pay?

State and local educators and corrections officers often battle over who is financially responsible for schooling juvenile offenders, Mr. Bell said. Here in Clark County, for example, local district leaders have said they can't afford to hire and train an extra teacher expressly to educate Tommy and his fellow inmates.

Donald W. Pace, the superintendent of the Clark County schools, said his budget is tight and his teachers aren't equipped to provide education in a jail environment. Like many other administrators across the country, Mr. Pace also is concerned for his employees' safety.

"Basically it's outside the realm of public school education," he said. "This is the judicial system's responsibility."

But Bobby W. Stone, the jailer at the Clark County Detention Center, pointed out that most of the juveniles in this regional jail are transferred from other jurisdictions. He said that the county shouldn't be required to hire a teacher to educate youths from other Kentucky districts and that county residents shouldn't have to shoulder the cost.

Mr. Stone said security at the jail, not educating its inmates, is his top priority. And besides, he added, the 15 juveniles now in his care--who range from accused murderers and rapists to chronic truants--don't deserve an education. "I might be cruel," he said. "But I believe when you commit these type of crimes, you aren't interested in learning."

Tough on Crime

In addition to the growing number of young people who are being sent to jail, youths in pretrial detention are increasingly held longer because of backlogs in the courts. Even though young people across the country stay in detention centers an average of 15 days, in many facilities, such as Clark County's, detainees may linger for an entire school year awaiting trial. An average jail stay for a convicted juvenile is about eight months.

In response to this population boom, political leaders from the statehouse to Congress have responded by supporting increased prison construction and security, while eschewing calls for social services such as education, said Steve Steurer, the executive director of the Correctional Education Association in Lanham, Md.

State Sen. Joseph U. Meyer of Kentucky recently sponsored a state law that calls for providing educational services only to juveniles who have been incarcerated for more than 15 days. "Some people think you should have full-time teachers, but in my opinion, that's a higher quality of education than we offer children who haven't committed a criminal act," Mr. Meyer said last month.

In Congress, Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, recently introduced legislation that would provide incentives for states to impose harsher sentences on juveniles convicted of violent crimes.

Many youth advocates point to such a "get tough" approach to juvenile crime as perhaps one of the strongest impediments to providing adequate services for confined youths.

"There's a political view on the national, state, and local level that says these kids are predators," said David W. Roush, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

"The philosophy is 'I am not, as a taxpayer, going to support something that is going into programs for punks,'" he said.

Mr. Roush said that keeping young people occupied with education while they are in jail can help keep such facilities from becoming laboratories for further crime.

Trading War Stories

George Wilson, the temporary director of the Franklin County detention center in Frankfort, Ky., freely acknowledged that his facility's education program isn't ideal. A GED tutor from the local school district comes in a couple of hours a day.

Most of the time the teenagers there sit in their cells trading war stories.

One day in August, Timothy, 16, who had been at Franklin for nine months, was busy recounting his substantial criminal record to his cellmates. The teenager had stolen a car and shot at (but missed) a police officer. Now he was accused of stealing a $1,000 gold necklace. "I was drunk and high on weed at the time," he said.

Most of the young men in Franklin County's juvenile ward admitted to having a drug problem. Ninety percent said they'd been locked up before, most for burglary and selling drugs. But 16-year-old William was charged with beating a 77-year-old woman to death in an alley.

"These kids are not angels," said David Richart, the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, which lobbies state leaders on behalf of juvenile offenders. Most are school dropouts and would be a challenge to teach, he said. "But they still have potential that can be unlocked by a teacher."

Peter E. Leone, a professor of special education at the University of Maryland--College Park and an expert on juvenile-justice education, said: "There's a greater likelihood that youth will keep from re-offending when they have more options opened to them."

Considering the rising costs of confinement, he said, such prevention measures as high-quality education programs would be a prudent investment.

Government's Response

In the three years since the Justice Department's report was released, state and national leaders have made efforts to upgrade education programs for juveniles in confinement and the U.S. Department of Education has stepped up its enforcement of IDEA protections for incarcerated youths.

Last year, the Education Department ordered Arizona and Idaho to offer special education programs to youths serving time in adult prisons. The department has also ordered 23 other states to take actions to comply with the law, said Ruth Ryder, who oversees IDEA enforcement for the department's office of special education programs.

Justice Department officials say they also are trying to improve the quality of schooling for young people in confinement. The department's office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention has paid for a three-year grant project to develop model schools in juvenile correctional facilities in Arizona, Colorado, and Minnesota. The office is also funding a project to create curricula that can be used effectively in overcrowded correctional facilities.

"It's the local and the state governments' responsibility to deal with these issues, but we try to provide information to help them be successful," Shay Bilchik, the administrator of the juvenile-justice office, said.

In addition, in the past several years, a number of states have taken the initiative to create high-quality educational programs. Juvenile-justice experts have said that Michigan and Minnesota each can boast exceptionally good education programs for confined youth. ("Supportive District, Vigilant Judge Make for Model," This Week's News.)

But many other state and local governments have buttressed their educational programs only after the courts declared the programs inadequate. Over the years, the Youth Law Center has won cases against 20 states for failing to provide various services, including education, to confined juveniles. After the court ruling in July, Kentucky began working on a plan to provide educational and recreational services to young people in detention across the state, including the Clark and Franklin county jails.

Jim Parks, a spokesman for the Kentucky education department, said the state already has set aside $700,000 to bolster educational services for confined juveniles.

Youth advocates and juvenile-justice experts applaud these efforts. But they don't expect to see every state in compliance with the laws anytime soon. With budgets stretched thin in many states, education for every imprisoned young person, these advocates say, isn't at the top of anybody's list.

Vol. 16, Issue 05

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