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  • Madelyn Nessler

Unlocking opportunities: The role of education in juvenile reentry.

The United States juvenile system processes more than 2.5 million juvenile arrests per year. However, for as many juveniles that enter the system each year, approximately 100,000 young people exit it, partaking in a process formally known as reentry. Reentry refers to “the transition of offenders from prisons or jails back into the community.” While reentry is notably difficult for adult offenders reentering society, youth offenders often face the challenge of returning to unstable home settings, struggling to remain in school, and lacking the necessary skills for employment

For juveniles leaving confinement, returning to the educational system is paramount to successful reentry into society. Juveniles are often incarcerated during an essential developmental phase of early adolescence. This developmental setup, paired with a lack of experience and skills necessary to handle adult responsibilities, often sets juveniles up for school re-enrollment challenges. Research shows that “juveniles experience high recidivism rates, ranging from 55 to 74% and that most youth do not re-enter the educational system after leaving confinement.

Research has shown that incarcerated youth consistently struggle to transition back into public schools once released. Re-enrollment of youth in schools following release from juvenile correctional facilities has been a persistent challenge as schools and school districts often push back on the re-enrollment of formerly incarcerated youth. Schools and school districts consistently espouse public safety concerns regarding the reintegration of juveniles into the system. A 1999 Annual Report to the Department of Education found that “one year after institutional release, only 28% of the youth were enrolled in school, 27% had withdrawn, and 45% never re-entered.” 

Additionally, it is well established that youth offenders often face mental health problems, have learning disabilities, come from unstable familial relationships, or come from poverty and crime-stricken communities. The common patterns of instability plaguing juveniles are only exacerbated by statistics showing that many of these youths perform below grade level and obtain histories of absences and suspensions. A majority of youths lack any high school credits and often require special education services.

 The criminal legal and education systems often seem to work against each other. While judges mandate school attendance for newly released juveniles, public schools work to delay or block the admittance of youth offenders into the schools. Additionally, the education system lacks an effective system for reentry for students. The criminal legal system releases juveniles from “custody during midsemesters and summers, when schools are least equipped to admit new students.” 

Due to the challenges mentioned above, over two-thirds of youth leaving custody do not return to school. Recidivism—“the tendency of a convicted [individual] to re-offend”—is an issue for justice practitioners. A lack of support for newly released youth offenders from educational systems plays a significant role in the continuation of youths re-committing crimes. Once released, youths are often overcome by society at large. When students are enrolled in schools, they are given a place to be five days a week surrounded by peers and adults. Additionally, students can learn skills and earn a high school degree. The failure to offer employment assistance, life-skills training, and counseling often leads youths to reoffend.

There is a gap in services between the criminal legal system and educational systems that contribute significantly to the high numbers of released youths who do not go back to school and ultimately reoffend. Criminal practitioners must work with educational leaders to establish reentry services and aftercare programs for youth exiting custody. Additionally, students must have immediate access to community schools upon release while also having appropriate school options for their needs. Criminal practitioners and educational program directors should consider dual curriculums to build social and academic skills, rolling admissions for students released by the legal system, family involvement, individual counseling, after-school tutoring, and restorative justice practices. 

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