Nearly 50,000 youths are in the U.S. juvenile justice system on a given day. They spend a significant portion of their time, regardless of why they’re in the system or how long, taking classes so they don’t fall behind on their education.

But a patchwork of problems — from inadequate academic staff and courses to poor record-keeping and how juveniles are moved around within the system — deprive many of these students of the school credits they’ve earned.

“They find all of the work they did inside the facility doesn’t count for anything. Either they don’t get credit for it, or they’ll just get an elective credit instead of a math credit or whatever’s required for graduation. This can happen because the school district doesn’t want to accept the credit records or records are lost, records are unclear, they’re incorrect,” said Nadia Mozaffar, a senior attorney at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm for children.  

The juvenile justice system was created as a “public good” to provide tools, services and rehabilitation needed so youths can rejoin their communities, said Mozaffar. Rehabilitative goals require youths to be in school and are supposed to offer services like special education if needed so they can succeed.

That may not happen.

The problem and policy solutions to help youths and their families are captured in a report by the Juvenile Law Center, Education Law Center-PA, Drexel University and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The findings are based on hundreds of surveys of professionals in 34 states and Washington, D.C. Credit Overdue: How States Can Mitigate Academic Credit Transfer Problems for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System also includes data from the National Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Neglected or Delinquent Children and Youth and focus groups, among other sources.

Researchers found big gaps between work youths did academically and the progress they made toward high school graduation:

  • 31% of survey respondents said youths don’t receive academic credits because records are lost.
  • 27% said facility classes don’t meet school or district standards.
  • Only 9% report students in short-term juvenile justice placements awaiting court action “always” receive earned credits. Youths in long-term placement post-adjudication fare slightly better, but it’s a paltry 17%.
  • 40% said youths are “often” forced to repeat classes or a whole grade level.
  • As many as two-thirds drop out if they fall behind academically in the juvenile justice system.

Youths can even be dinged for a probation violation if records are not kept well and don’t reflect their academic work, the report said.

“I always use the analogy that as adults, when we go to work, we put in work, we expect to be paid,” Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, told researchers. “Kids go into these settings and they put in the work and they expect to get grades and credit for that. When that doesn’t happen, it’s incredibly maddening.”

Falling behind

Academic credit transfer problems for students in state custody are found across the nation, some states doing better than others. They persist despite federal mandates under the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act. Both require states to create a process that makes assessment and credit transfer smooth and timely.

Katherine Dunn, regional policy analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, worries about the “over-incarceration of young people in this country.” She believes the school-to-prison pipeline should be eliminated as much as possible and said the report adds “more analysis to why incarcerating youth is not a solution to all issues of misbehavior. And often, they aren’t even issues of misbehavior that are the reason youths end up incarcerated.”

Juveniles may get off track because they’re bored or disengaged in class or lack resources and support, she said. Minor issues can lead to a suspension that increases a young person’s likelihood of being caught in the juvenile justice system because they’re out of school.

For some kids, entanglement with juvenile justice starts with something as simple as skipping class, she said. And initial overly punitive consequences can lead to more serious offenses.

“Even brief experiences in the justice system can put them further and further behind in their ability to learn and accomplish their goals and thrive,” said Dunn.

Not receiving credits isn’t just demoralizing to youths.

“Teens are going through a phase called identity vs. role confusion, which impacts their self-concept. In addition, they lean heavily toward social comparison to see if they are ‘normal’ or not.  Therefore, teens in the justice system receiving uneven education and not advancing academically could quickly feel inferior, leading to worse self-esteem and a higher risk for recidivism,” psychologist Wyatt Fisher of Boulder, Colorado, told the Deseret News. Fisher works with families in crisis and has created an app for couples.  

Many young people in the juvenile justice system are among the most vulnerable in a community, Mozaffar said. “If we don’t ensure that they receive the services they need, it’s going to have impacts on our community as a whole, because they’re part of our community.”

Black, Hispanic and native youths, those with disabilities, LGBTQ youth, those learning English or who are undocumented are more likely to referred to the juvenile justice system, the report said, and be among the most impacted by education flaws in the system.

The credit transfer problem results from what Mozaffar calls “fundamental” issues with the juvenile justice system, including instability a young person can experience there, from being moved around to uneven education quality.

The report said if the right math class was taken, for example, but not taught by a certified teacher, some schools might not award credit. Infrastructures may not ensure credits are transferred or that someone can interpret what a class in the juvenile justice system would be the equivalent of in a traditional school.

“Someone needs to put the time in to think that through and oftentimes those supports are not available,” said Mozaffar. 


The report recommends state legislatures ensure their policies line up with federal mandates. They also need to ensure that youths “receive quality, credit-bearing courses in these facilities,” the report said, adding that schools must be required to accept classwork done by the youths, including partial credits, and should be flexible enough to help them earn diplomas.

Some of that likely requires enforcement, report authors wrote.

Mozaffar said the top recommendation in the report is long-term reform to keep kids at home rather than placing them inside facilities. “Provide services in other settings,” she said. If that’s not possible, the report recommends youths go to school in their communities or at least in the same school district. 

Many states and localities are moving in that direction, she said. But for youths already in the juvenile justice system without their home community nearby, hiring staff and building structures to help ease transition into and out of the juvenile justice facility matters.

Mozaffar said many states now require that transition planning begins as soon as students enter the system — including education goals to address what they’ll need to succeed back in their communities.

Utah requires local education agencies to accept credits earned in accredited programs at face value in all Utah public schools and to coordinate educational services with custody programs so that juveniles can continue their education when they leave custody. Juvenile programs have to enroll incarcerated youths in classes within five school days of a new residential placement. They also have to update school records and forward them to the receiving school, the report said.

Another need is a support coordinator — someone to make sure education data transitions back to the traditional school, too.

Schools have flexibility to work with youths and their families. They have experience with students in military families who move often yet graduate in a timely fashion.

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“We encourage schools to pre-create policies that also do this for young people who are leaving juvenile justice facilities or other groups of people, including youth who are in the child welfare system or who experience homelessness,” said Mozaffar.

“It does take additional work and care and compassion to ensure that a young person who’s faced a lot of difficulties in their past can overcome those. If there isn’t a structure in place to very actively deal with that, it’s really easy for students to fall through the cracks,” she said. 

The report appendix highlights several states with statutes that help ensure students leaving the juvenile justice system get earned academic credits. They include New Mexico, Florida and California. Connecticut recently passed some of the recommended provisions. But many states haven’t tackled the issue.

“Legislatures can simply step up to fix this for the nearly 50,000 youths who are currently confined by adopting some simple practices that ensure that districts and the facilities are communicating regularly with each other, sharing records and looking out for young people,” Dunn said, “so that the work that they do in their school districts and in the facilities is all counted and they’re not put even further behind.”

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