Politics & Government

Here’s how to do better in education for incarcerated young people, Education and Justice departments say

The estimated 60,000 young people who are held in juvenile justice centers must have the same opportunities for education as students in the nation’s regular public schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said on Monday as they announced new guidelines aimed at improving what a White House task force found was a low level of educational achievement in the detention facilities.

A report from the My Brother’s Keeper Task force in May found that only 6.6 percent of those in juvenile correctional facilities earned a GED or a high school diploma. The task force also found that only 47 percent of incarcerated youth earned any high school credits. The report called for facilities to provide academic and job-related instruction tailored to students needs’ and comparable in quality to what they’d get in public schools.

“Young people should not fall off-track for life just because they come into contact with the justice system,” Duncan said as he and Holder unveiled new guidance for education for incarcerated students. They spoke at the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center in Alexandria.

Detention facilities around the country receive education grants from the departments of Education and Justice. The guidelines said that juvenile justice residential facilities that receive these federal funds must obey civil rights laws. Among other things, they must make sure that students in any state who are incarcerated get “the same opportunities to meet the state’s challenging academic content standards and student achievement standards as they would if they were enrolled in the public schools of the state,” the departments said in a “dear colleague” letter.

The letter went on to say that the facilities must also provide services that help these youth move from “institutionalization to further education or employment.”

The guidelines included a need for safe settings where education is prioritized; enough funding so that all of these students get the education they need, including those with disabilities and those who are learning English as a second language; teachers with the right skills to make a positive long-term impact; and "rigorous and relevant curricula" aligned to state standards.

“We hope and expect this guidance will offer a roadmap for enhancing these young people's academic and social skills, and reducing the likelihood of recidivism," Holder said.

Another advocate for prison education made a separate appeal on Monday. Christopher Zoukis, who is incarcerated in Virginia and who founded the website prisoneducation.com and blogs on Huffington Post, argued in a news release that providing higher education for prisoners would result in big savings for the government. Zoukis said his research made him conclude that $60 billion a year could be saved as a result of less crime after prisoners were released.

“The statistics speak for themselves when it comes to recidivism rates and education. Wouldn’t we rather release into society educated and rehabilitated ex-prisoners who qualify for jobs, who pay taxes, and spend consumer dollars to bolster our economy so taxpayers don’t have to?” Zoukis said.

He makes the case in a new book, “College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons.”

“Clearly not all prisoners can be educated,” Zoukis said. “But the number of prisoners who are beyond rehabilitation is relatively small; most are eager for education and can turn from crime to live a productive, law-abiding life.”