New Report Reveals South Carolina Student Absences Got Worse When Juvenile Justice Systems Stepped In

September 16, 2020

Many states and school districts across the country use the juvenile justice system to address chronic absences and other school performance issues. But new, first-of-its-kind research from The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center raises significant concerns about this approach.

Rethinking the Role of the Juvenile Justice System: Improving Youth’s School Attendance and Educational Outcomes reveals that kids involved in the juvenile justice system in South Carolina not only didn’t experience attendance improvements, but their attendance actually got worse; kids missed five more days of school on average than they had in the year before their juvenile justice involvement. Even kids who received court oversight and the threat of further sanctions specifically designed to get them to attend school more did not experience any improvements in their attendance compared to their peers.

There’s little argument that school attendance and completion have long-term benefits, including reduced crime and improved labor market earnings. So, it’s understandable that state and local leaders are concerned about kids who struggle with excessive school absences. But the reasons students aren’t engaged in class and struggle with absences were individual and complex before COVID-19 was thrust into every American family. And they’re likely to be even more complicated now.

Using juvenile justice sanctions to motivate changes to kids’ school behavior is an issue many states struggle with. In about half of states, truancy is a crime. Even in states that have decriminalized truancy, youth can frequently still be sent to court for too many school absences. In 2018, U.S. schools referred more than 60,000 students—disproportionately kids of color—to court for truancy. Since 2010, referrals for almost all other types of juvenile offenses have declined, but court referrals for truancy have actually increased in recent years.

The CSG Justice Center study also raises questions about whether some schools’ policies and practices actually make it harder for justice-involved youth to engage and succeed in school. Some schools in South Carolina, and in other communities across the country, take punitive measures when kids become involved with the juvenile justice system, including barring them from attending in-person classes, automatically suspending or expelling them, and requiring them to attend alternative schools. These approaches make it harder, not easier, for kids to stay connected to the positive adults, peers, and activities that are critical to successful education.

This new research compels policymakers, judges, attorneys, probation directors, and educators to wrestle with an important question: are juvenile justice system involvement and school disciplinary measures really the most appropriate and effective ways to help kids succeed in school?

Read the full report.

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About the Author

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Deputy Division Director, Corrections and Reentry
Josh Weber directs the CSG Justice Center's juvenile justice program, which focuses on helping states use effective methods to reduce recidivism and improve outcomes for youth in contact with the juvenile justice system. Previously, Josh spent 10 years working on
building the capacity of programs and systems that serve vulnerable youth in the juvenile justice, youth development, workforce development, and child welfare systems. Josh managed research programs for the Youth Development and Research Fund in Maryland and the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. In addition, Josh led the development and implementation of NYC Administration for Children’s Services' alternative to placement and reentry program for juveniles using evidence-based practices. He also directed the District of Columbia’s Justice Grants Administration, which managed all federal juvenile and criminal justice grants for the District. Josh received his BA in psychology from Duke University and his MPA from Princeton University.
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