Education behind Bars: Can Young People Be Taught in Adult Justice System?

Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

By Mahari Simmonds

Is it possible to educate youth in the adult criminal justice system? As Marshall Project reporter Eli Hager recently observed, “In the U.S., there is adult jail and there is school, and the two rarely go together.”

Advocates continually grapple with the daunting barriers to educating youth in adult facilities due to the staggering number of youths being held in adult jails and prisons. On average, each day 10,000 youth — a disproportionate number of whom are African-American and Latinx — are detained in adult facilities. Youth are held in adult jails and prisons when they are prosecuted and sentenced in the adult justice system. While many jurisdictions historically provided for the prosecution of some youth as adults, most current laws originated in the “tough on crime” era of the 1980s and ’90s. Although the notion of “superpredator” youth who require harsh punishment in the adult justice system that led to such laws has been debunked and juvenile crime has steadily decreased, as many as 75,000 youth per year are still charged and prosecuted as adults.

Once inside adult facilities, youth face abysmal education options and services. For example, a 2018 Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report revealed that education provided to children in adult jails in Florida is either virtually nonexistent or seriously deficient. The report also noted that in many small jails, all children are housed in solitary confinement to keep them separate from adults and denied any education at all. Although youth in larger jails often receive a better education, those held in solitary confinement — either because of disciplinary issues or to keep them separate from adults — are still left out of educational programming.

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