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DOJ and Department of Education Focus on Education of Juvenile Detainees

There’s always been plenty of money available to incarcerate juvenile offenders in the United States, but finding funds and motivation to educate those young people has often been sadly lacking.  Recently, however, Attorney General Eric Holder and Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a refocusing of federal efforts to educate the 60,000 juvenile detainees in juvenile justice centers across the country.  The federal government has published a set of “guiding principles” meant to draw attention to the problem and ways to solve it.

At a press conference at the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center in Alexandria, Virginia, Holder promised that, “all children-and I mean all children-deserve equal access to a high-quality education.  And this is no less true for children who are in the juvenile justice system.”

Juvenile law experts noted that laws are already on the books that guarantee all children a proper education, but that these laws are rarely enforced.  Kate Burdick, a lawyer for the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, said, “I’m sure advocates will be using this as a tool to educate facilities about…what their current legal obligations are.” Currently, most state’s constitutions guarantee children the right to a free public education, but unfortunately the emphasis on American penology generally seems to skew more toward punishment than rehabilitation and education, and the law is not always followed.

 Congress has also been tone-deaf about the need for education for the nation’s young offenders, banning Pell Grants to detainees in state and federal facilities (including juvenile offenders, since the early 90’s as a part of the “tough-on-crime” program.

That ban is still in effect today, meaning that juveniles, who may already be behind in school when incarcerated, may fall even further behind educationally.  Native Americans have been especially adversely affected by the lack of proper educational facilities in juvenile detention centers.

Federal officials claim now to be more focused on the issue of juvenile detainee education, emphasizing that such detainees in a local, municipal, or county are eligible for Pell Grants.  However, a large number of the 60,000 juveniles are confined in state and federal facilities.

Of course, federal officials emphasize this does not foreclose juveniles for filing for aid from other non-Pell Grant sources, such as schools and charitable organizations,

But in many juvenile justice facilities there are few officials knowledgeable in these procedures and most students are not even aware that alternate funding sources are available.

Duncan emphasized the obvious, stating that most juvenile prisoners who receive a college education (or any education) are less likely to offend, an opinion shared by all prisoners’ rights experts and all studies of the subject.  “We want to make sure these educational opportunities are available here while they’re locked up.  To have them sit here and not progress academically is a tremendous waste of time and energy,” he said.

According to the Washington Post, “it cosst an average of $88,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile offender.”  That would be substantially more than a year of tuition at Harvard.


Sources:,,, Washington Post

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