Raising the age
Juvenile justice reforms in a number of other states, too, have increased the need for higher education in youth prisons – the population of which is increasingly traditional college age. In 2018, Vermont became the first state to “raise the age”, automatically keeping most 18-year-olds in the juvenile system. Since then, Michigan and New York have followed suit.
Older youth who have adult sentences also have the added incentive to focus on their education because refusal to participate in programming or behavioral issues can mean they are transferred to the adult system earlier.
“Ideally, ‘raise the age’ should not be about keeping youth in the system for longer, it should be about recognizing that developmental science shows that young adults have great capacity for change,” Bliss says.
An inadequate education
But although juvenile facilities put more focus on rehabilitation than the adult system does, the secondary education offered to incarcerated youth is often inadequate and doesn’t prepare them for college. Some estimates found that only around 1 percent of justice-involved youth
ever earn a college degree.
In New York, a recent investigation by the Times Union
found that “the programs that were supposed to support the state’s Raise the Age statute…have arguably failed to provide many of those teenagers with the services needed to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into their communities.”
“With ‘raise the age’, building out community college and higher ed programs is about making sure that students who graduate from high school have access to a supportive array of reentry and diversion services,” Bliss says, adding that college programs in detention facilities should never be a justification for keeping youth locked up.
“It makes me feel like I’m not just locked up”
That’s where states like Utah, California, and New Jersey could provide models for college programs in youth facilities. These programs serve the dual purpose of degree pathways for high-school graduates, but also provide more challenging classes for current high-school students. And research shows that youth who do achieve higher levels of education while in the juvenile justice system
are more likely to experience positive outcomes in the community once released.
JG, 18, has been taking college classes from Dixie State since he graduated from high school last November. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my future, so I decided to give it a chance,” he says.
His favorite class is ethics, where he’s currently learning about Adam Smith and utilitarianism. He enjoys “understanding the what’s and the why’s of everything.”
JG is set to be released from the Division of Juvenile Justice Services next month, but he’ll be able to finish the semester online. Nathan Caplin, who directs the Dixie State program, says he’s hoping to have a scholarship in place that would cover tuition and allow JS to continue his education.
College programs for incarcerated youth should also provide support services after their release, says Bliss of the Youth Law Center. “You have to have a warm handoff to different aspects of the campus so that you’re not blindly navigating the college experience,” Bliss says.
As for AA, she’s looking forward to taking more college classes before and after she graduates from high school: “It makes me feel like I’m not just locked up in here. It makes me feel like I have an opportunity to do something better.”