Powerful Conference on Reforming Juvenile Justice Systems Overlooked Education

It’s no surprise that conferences and convenings are often packed to the gills with sessions and speakers, making it difficult to go deep on any one issue.

But when I attended the 3rd annual Janet Reno Forum on Juvenile Justice last week, I expected the topic of education in juvenile justice facilities to get some airtime. I was disappointed that the event, held at at the Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR), largely overlooked the issue.

As Bellwether demonstrated in a report last year, academic programming at juvenile justice schools is wholly insufficient. For example, students in juvenile justice facilities have far less access to critical math and science courses necessary for high school graduation. Moreover, they have less access to credit recovery programs, which help them catch up if they’re behind. Next month we will release a follow-up analysis delving more deeply into the inadequacies and disparities in juvenile justice education.

As part of the event, the Center released a new report, “A Roadmap to the Ideal Juvenile Justice System,” which stresses eight key operating principles:

  • Developmentally appropriate;
  • Research-based, data-driven, and outcome-focused;
  • Fair and equitable;
  • Strengths-based;
  • Trauma-informed and responsive;
  • Supportive of positive relationships and stability;
  • Youth-and family-centered; and,
  • Coordinated.

But as my colleague Hailly Korman has written, education has to be part of any juvenile justice system. Education is the best and most consistent through line for young people navigating a complex path through juvenile justice and other systems. While CJJR’s report offers an important approach, the success of reforms will be hampered if they do not address education in these facilities.

Nevertheless, several important themes emerged across the panels and discussions:

  • We need data, data, and more data. Across virtually all the panels, experts stressed the importance of collecting more and higher quality data about youth engagement in the juvenile justice system. Speakers noted the need to analyze data for patterns and disparities in adjudication and outcomes in order to reduce youth engagement with the system and improve youth experiences while in the system. Identifying and implanting data-driven practices aligned with youth and community needs — such as diverting youth who commit low-level offenses into social services agencies — came up time and time again throughout the day.
  • Collaboration across systems of care is crucial. Advocates, former police officers, judges, prosecutors, and officials from other government agencies all made clear that the challenge of reforming juvenile justice systems must be tackled collaboratively. Neither the problems nor the solutions fall on any single group. Serious progress can be made through working with the community, sharing information, being transparent, and building relationships across sectors.
  • Change takes time. As one panelist put it, structural inequality was built over hundreds years and cannot be dismantled immediately. Progress will take time, but incremental change is necessary, possible, and leads to broader reforms.

For my part, I most enjoyed learning from practitioners and reformers about the many steps they’ve taken to move the ball forward. I just wish they had touched on efforts to improve education quality in juvenile justice facilities since it was a glaring omission.

Still, the event left me energized and hopeful that with so many smart and enthusiastic advocates and experts working together, we will move our juvenile justice system closer to being just.