PBS Newshour: Breaking the School-To-Prison Pipeline for Young Offenders One Class at a Time

PBS Newshour

By Hari Sreenivasan

In most states across America, education for teen offenders pales in comparison to what they’d receive on the outside. Just one third mandate that these kids meet the same standards as their public school counterparts. Massachusetts is one of them, and there the goal is to save these young offenders with vocational classes and good old reading, writing and arithmetic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: a look into the poor state of education for the 60,000 children locked up in juvenile detention facilities across the nation.

Hari Sreenivasan takes us inside one state that is working to do better. It’s another in our ongoing series Broken Justice.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Graduation day in Lowell, Massachusetts, with all the typical fanfare, balloons, beaming parents and motivational speeches.

MAN: All of you are sitting there trying to figure out, OK, where is this going to go? What am I going to be when I grow up? I guarantee you that every single adult in this room had the same thought at 17, 18, 19.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yet these kids aren’t like most graduating from high school this time of year. At some point in their young lives, each was convicted of a crime and sentenced to the care of the Department of Youth Services, the state’s juvenile corrections agency, and though they have since earned back far more freedom, they graduate in custody.

MAN: Getting committed to DYS is a stressful time, and I’m proud of all of you and myself for sticking to what’s important, getting an education and bettering ourselves.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On any given day across the country, 36,000 teenagers and young people are held in long-term state custody more than 60 days, and two-thirds of them are black and Latino.

In the past 20 years, this incarcerated population has dropped by about half, and many are now looking at how to improve education, and thus outcomes, for juveniles who end up in this system.

MICHAEL THOMPSON, Director, The Council of State Governments Justice Center: When you look at this population, they have been suspended multiple times, haven’t progressed very far in the educational system, dropped out, been expelled. And we wanted to make sure that when these kids are coming back to the community, we knew education was key.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michael Thompson is executive director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonprofit whose recent report looked at education in juvenile detention settings in all 50 states.

MICHAEL THOMPSON: If you asked anybody on the street, what’s important to helping turn this kid’s life around, they are going to say, well, they need an education.

So I think everybody assumes they get a certain quality of education while they’re incarcerated. But it turns out this is not an educational system that is held accountable to the same kind of standards that the public education system is.

HARI SREENIVASAN: His group found large gaps from state to state in education available to juvenile populations, and that only one-third of states require incarcerated kids meet the same educational standards as those in public schools.

LYNNE ALLEN, Judge John Connelly Youth Center: We have art class, we have gym class, math, history. Everything you would find in a regular school, we have here as well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One state that is doing better is Massachusetts by matching standards inside detention with what students would receive on the outside, tracking students’ progress through the system, and helping kids return to the community.

LYNNE ALLEN: Welcome to Judge Connelly.

Lynne Allen runs the Judge John Connelly detention facility in Boston, the state’s most restrictive. One advantage, unlike most states, Massachusetts centralizes juvenile education, rather than spreading it among state, local and private agencies.

I’m assuming some of these young these kids are in for pretty serious crimes.

LYNNE ALLEN: They are.

This facility works with young men up to manslaughter charges. So we do have some kids who have a pretty good history behind them. But the charges that have brought you here don’t have to define who you are.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In 2015, 17-year-old Josh was convicted of manslaughter. He’s spent the past 10 months at Connelly and has another eight to go.

Like the other 14 young men here, he lives on a secure detention floor, his movement constantly monitored. But for 5.5 hours a day, he and the others are in school downstairs, attending academic classes like English, and math, vocational courses like A.V. engineering, AKA deejaying, or how to build copper wiring and ethernet jacks.

Josh recently began psychology classes online through Bunker Hill Community College, credits he hopes to put towards the University of California when he gets out.

JOSH, Resident, Judge John Connelly Youth Center: I always wanted to go to California, and I skateboard, and I always wanted to go to college, so I feel like, put them all together, that would just be dope.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is the goal of the state to make you realize the gravity of what you have done?

JOSH: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is that going to happen while you’re here and in class, and taking an online course?

JOSH: Well, for me, I just have goals for myself. And I definitely do feel bad for what happened. And I definitely want to do better for the people.

I have two younger brothers, so they look up to me. I have people that see a lot in me, and I don’t want to really let them down, or myself down, for that matter.

LYNNE ALLEN: They’re coming back to communities. We want these kids to come out with the skills to succeed. And we know they can succeed, because they’re amazingly resilient.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Another key difference is Massachusetts’ support through education coordinators and caseworkers, people assigned to guide each student into and out of this system, making sure education plans, grades and credits transfer from and back to school.

MICHAEL THOMPSON: When a kid who is incarcerated, they are going to get out, and you ask the question, then, well, how is that student going to follow up and enroll in school once they are released? And many of these schools, for reasons you can probably imagine, want nothing to do with the student when they come back.

So the question then becomes, well, who is going to manage this transition? Who is going to do that? Well, it turns out that in most states, it is up to the parent and the kid to actually manage that transition.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Education and career counselor Kelly McMorrow works with Josh and about 75 other young men at any given time.

It seems in some way that there are these big systemic forces weighing down on them by the time they get here. Right? They made a bad decision, clearly, by the time they have gotten here. How do you turn that around in the limited amount of time that you have with them in a place like this?

KELLY MCMORROW, Education and Career Counselor: It’s challenging, but I think that’s our biggest goal, is to find what makes them tick, what passions they have, and try to figure — help them figure out what path they want to take, so that they can go down a positive road, so that they’re not labeled and defined by whatever their charge is.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, managing the transition from lockup to a secure facility like Connelly and eventually back to the community often through halfway houses like this one is crucial, says commissioner Peter Forbes.

PETER FORBES, Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Youth Services: Because, if we have kids come in and advance grade levels and do great work, and we don’t hand that off to anything constructive in the community, it’s half-a-loaf. So we’re really trying to leverage the work that goes on while they’re in placement with a positive transition that translates into traction in the community.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Back in Lowell, 20-year-old John Coady estimates that he lived in nearly two dozen different juvenile facilities around the state during his more-than-six-year tenure. This fall, he’s headed to a four-year college, where he plans to play football.

JOHN COADY, Resident: Being locked up, you lose a lot of life experiences where you gain wisdom and stuff.

And if you can get your education in there, like, at least you will have something going for you. If you don’t have education or work experience, or anything, I mean, you’re lost. When you come out, you’re going to have no friends. You’re going — your family is probably not going to care much. You’re not going to have anything.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And many say that’s a prospect still far too many young people across the nation continue to face.

From Boston, Massachusetts, I’m Hari Sreenivasan for the “PBS NewsHour.”