5 Things I Wish I Had Known About Juvenile Justice

Zachary Malter, former
Policy Research Assistant

This post was originally published in May 2016. Young people involved in the juvenile justice system often face significant barriers that hinder their path to successfully complete high school and transition to postsecondary education and/or work. In this blog post, former Policy Research Assistant Zachary Malter reflects on his time as a high school teacher and shares 5 insights he wished he had known about the juvenile justice system and its impact on his students.

“What are your plans for after school?” I asked Ramón* as he stepped towards the door of my classroom, one of the last to leave that period. Ramón was one of my quietest and shortest students, and I had never before had the chance to ask him about his personal life.

“I’m supposed to be meeting with my probation officer,” he responded, dejectedly.

This exchange not only challenged my assumptions about how young people on probation look and act—it also left me wondering how I could better support my students with juvenile justice experience, both those students currently on probation and those formerly incarcerated.

The sad reality is that students like Ramón will face many additional barriers to successfully completing high school ready to transition into college and/or a career. Looking back on my time as a high school teacher, here are 5 things I wish I had known about juvenile justice and its relationship to my students:

1. Many schools in juvenile detention facilities lack basic instruction and educational services, making students’ transition out that much harder.

According to a recent report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, 60,000 young people are incarcerated on any given day, and they are legally obligated to receive educational services. Yet, according to David Domenici of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, in his remarks at the 2016 Atlantic Education Summit, many classes in facilities lack basic instruction. Instead, students are given crossword puzzles or textbooks to complete on their own while an adult sits at the front of room. As a result, students in facilities are more likely to fall behind, making their pre-existing educational gaps that much greater. If students return to a traditional school after leaving a facility (66% don’t, and of those who do, many enter alternative schools), they need teachers who can devote extra attention towards catching them up, filling in gaps in their knowledge, and helping them see the value of schooling.

2. Educational records and credits often do not transfer quickly between a juvenile detention facility and a home school. Therefore, students with previous juvenile justice experience might be enrolled in classes that they are not prepared for or that they have already taken.

Often a juvenile justice agency or a private provider runs education services in a youth facility, a system which makes the transfer of records back to the home school more likely to be delayed. A student who has been incarcerated may fall behind academically without the home school being informed. As a result, the student may be placed into classes that are too advanced. Alternatively, if records never transfer, credits awarded in facilities may not be counted—and students may be forced to attend classes that they have already passed with students who are younger and with content that is too easy. Further, the time a student spends in a facility may not align with the school calendar, decreasing the likelihood that a student will obtain academic credit in the facility. As a teacher, it is important to recognize the frustration these students may experience, and to personalize the instruction, whenever possible, to meet their needs.

3. Youth with juvenile justice system experience often have many mandatory meetings and responsibilities, making it harder for them to complete homework.

Ramón spoke of his court-mandated probationary meeting, and other students with juvenile justice experience reported having community service and counseling requirements. These commitments are especially substantial for the roughly 50% of young people with juvenile justice involvement who have concurrent child welfare involvement. Regardless of the merit of these required meetings, they take up a significant amount of time, which detracts from these students’ ability to do homework (let alone work or participate in extracurricular activities). Teachers need to be realistic when they assign homework, given these outside demands, without unduly sacrificing the rigor of their coursework.

4. Young people with juvenile justice experience will face challenges in accessing postsecondary education and applying for jobs.

When applying for jobs or for college, young people with criminal justice experience may have to reveal their juvenile justice involvement by checking a box on an application. Recently there has been a movement supported by the U.S. Department of Education toward ending this practice or “banning the box.” However, in most places, young people will still face this obstacle. Teachers should be better informed about this issue so they can guide their students in pursuing the sealing or expungement of their court records and in applying for jobs or further educational opportunities which do not require that they reveal their juvenile history. More resources on re-entry, the process of returning from a facility and transitioning into an outside community, can be found at the Reentry Services Directory and the Reentry Education Toolkit.

5. There are many programs to support young people with juvenile justice system experience.

There are numerous state and local programs helping young people who are re-entering with challenges such as navigating education and employment, dealing with criminal records, and gaining access to housing and wrap-around services. Some of them around the country include Youth Empowerment Project, Exalt Youth, UTEC, PACE Center for Girls, NYC Justice Corps, Homeboy Industries, More Than Words among many others. Since there is a shortage of counselors in many schools, a teacher could be the ideal person to refer a student to a supportive youth program.

Overall, teachers can be major players in supporting students with juvenile justice system experience, including Ramón, who deserve a quality education like all other children.

*The name has been changed to protect the identity of my former student.


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