Reforming the Juvenile Justice System with Education

Posted by MST Services

Jul 14, 2022 9:00:00 AM

AdobeStock_431669533Literacy and incarceration are two words that you don't often hear in the same sentence. When you read those terms, you might feel that they have nothing in common or that they are opposites. But here's what is interesting, despite what you may think, they are closely related and there are many reasons why. The Department of Justice states, "The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure."

In fact, more than 60% of all prison inmates and 85% of justice-involved youth are functionally illiterate. The connection between illiteracy and incarceration is alarming and sadly not commonly talked about.

Illiteracy and Incarceration

For most adolescents, their formal academic education begins at the age of 5 years old. However, it is not until the 4th Grade, the watershed year, that professionals can predict the potential likelihood of a child’s future success based on their reading ability. Research shows that two-thirds of students who are not able to accurately read by the end of 4th grade will be involved in the juvenile justice or child welfare system. It is predicted that these students now have a 78% chance of not catching up in their education paths. Not only is this a worrying issue in the U.S., but in other countries that monitor education benchmarks as well. From an international standpoint, the EU Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 results revealed that one in five adolescents are unable to complete basic tasks in reading, mathematics, and science.

Juvenile facilities, by law, are required to provide academic coursework and instruction, though it can be below standard in both the U.S. and in other countries around the world. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights states that the percentage of schools offering math and science classes is different in detention centers and public high schools. Only 8% of justice facilities offer physics classes, compared to 60% of high schools. Moreover, prisons have 7 books on average per justice-involved individual, while the American Library Association advocates for 15. To put it simply, 85% of juveniles are already performing below reading guidelines, and the unfair education and resources they receive in the justice system prevent them from improving their literacy skills. Furthermore, 66% of youth do not return to their schools after being released from detention —but can you blame them if they have fallen so far behind without proper educational support while serving their sentences?

Feelings and Factors Correlated to Education

There is no doubt that children feel the effects of not performing at the same level as their peers in the classroom. Some experience shame, embarrassment, anger, behavioral issues, and negative mental and physical health results. Over time, these feelings and behaviors can escalate if they go unnoticed or are left untreated.

In addition, a wide range of factors can affect the development of reading skills in children and adolescents. Several have to do with the home environment, such as school readiness, family stressors, chronic absences, summer learning loss, or teaching ability both at school and at home. The main reason most young people drop out of school is because of a lack of interest, limited support system, or learning difficulties.

When youth do not feel supported, encouraged, or even guided, their motivation in school may be lessened, and this can have a detrimental effect on their future.

Focusing on Youths’ Behaviors to Reform the Juvenile Justice System

Education is one strategy proven to help people stay out of trouble and out of prison. Justice-involved individuals who receive literacy assistance are only 16% likely to return to jail, compared to 70% of those who do not.

The evidence is clear— programs that focus on school success and relationship building in the home are crucial for youth to stay away from system involvement. Multisystemic Therapy (MST) is an evidence-based program for at-risk youth and their families. MST focuses on the teen’s behavior, association with peers, school or vocational performance, and family relations. The MST model features a balanced approach with various techniques that include cognitive, behavioral, and pragmatic family therapies. By including the school, home, and community environments, MST helps to create strong support networks and encourage overall success.

MST helps youth re-engage in their school and community, which reduces anti-social behaviors. Brenda Szumski, Executive Director at MST Services and a former MST Clinical Supervisor says, “MST works within the school environment to help young people improve school performance and increase school involvement. By targeting these school drivers, young people engage more positively with their schools.”

Supporting the entire ecology of the teen will promote long-lasting and sustainable positive change, unlike detention facilities that take youth away from their environments. By implementing intensive in-home family therapies that have a focus on education, we can empower children to learn how to be successful in their homes, schools, and communities and avoid juvenile justice and child welfare system involvement down the line.

To learn more about illiteracy and incarceration, view our infographic by clicking here.

Multisystemic Therapy (MST) is an evidence-based alternative to incarceration or severe system consequences due to serious externalizing, anti-social, and/or criminal behaviors. MST effectively treats youth and their families by utilizing a built-in suite of services within the home, school, and community settings. Treatment is tailored to the family and their individual strengths and needs which could include but is not limited to the following types of interventions: Family Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Drug and Alcohol treatment, Mental Health Services, Peer Ecology Assessment and Intervention, Trauma-informed treatment, and Educational/ Vocational Support.

If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about Multisystemic Therapy, contact us here.

Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform, Child Welfare