It is extremely difficult for youth who have been living in correctional facilities to return to their communities, families, schools, and employment. Because the youth are very likely to be returning to the very same environments into which they got into trouble in the first place (e.g., poverty, chaotic schools, substance abuse issues, or dysfunctional families), their rate of recidivism is extremely high. According a new report from Project Forum released last December, approximately 55% of youth return to detention facilities or prisons within 12 months of their release. And that number is even higher for youth with disabilities. As one researcher commented, “the most difficult part of many youths’ experience in the juvenile justice system is not being confined, but returning home.”
How many youth are incarcerated in our country, and what disabilities do they have? In 2007, more than 87,000 youths were held in juvenile correctional facilities; an additional 3,650 were in state prisons. Of these numbers, youth with disabilities are overrepresented. One study showed that whereas only 9% of youth in our nation’s schools are eligible for special education services, an estimated 37% of youth in the juvenile justice system receive services under IDEA. Some reports suggest that the number of incarcerated youths with special needs in fact ranges from 30 to 70% of the population. Of incarcerated youth, between 65% and 90% could be diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder. Additionally, it is estimated that approximately 10% of incarcerated youth have learning disabilities, 50% have emotional disorders, 12% have intellectual disabilities, and as many as 50% have AD/HD.
These youthful offenders have likely been served poorly by their home schools. They have also likely been served poorly through the educational programs offered by the juvenile justice system. Even though incarcerated, students who receive special education services are still entitled to FAPE (free and appropriate public education). But the provision of FAPE can be problematic for youthful offenders. Incarcerated youth can be moved frequently, IEPs and educational records (if they are even obtained from home schools) do not always follow the offenders, families are minimally involved with educational planning, and some of the disciplinary procedures used for offenders are unhelpful to them educationally. This is regrettable, because we know that youths who progress academically while incarcerated will have lower recidivism rates.
Despite the glum numbers, we know youth with disabilities who are engaged in work or school during the first three months of their release are 3.2 times less likely to return to custody and 2.5 times more likely to remain working or enrolled in school 12 months after leaving the correctional facility. These youth can successfully be returned to society. Thus, it is imperative that good transition programs are developed for these youth to ensure successful outcomes for them.
To that end, Project Forum conducted a review of programs in four states (Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, and Oregon) that offer what are considered “best practices” in their reentry programs for incarcerated youths. Historically, re-entry programs for youth tend to be fragmented, and too many offenders fall between the proverbial cracks of the system. One of the main problems is that youth leaving correctional facilities are aging out of child-oriented social programs and being funneled into adult-oriented services. Many of these adult programs are developmentally inappropriate for youthful offenders, who can be left floundering.
To address these gaps in service, each state identified by Project Forum offered comprehensive, multi-disciplinary wrap-around programs to ensure that the needs of youth are met upon release. Key to each of the programs is the use of a transition coordinator, who establishes relationships with the youths before their release, ensures that community-based services are set in the community upon release, and then continues to follow the youth once they are back in the community. In addition, each state is addressing the educational, employment, social and behavioral, substance abuse, housing, and transportation needs of recently released youth.
It is not inevitable that incarcerated youth will return to detention facilities, but the odds are stacked against them. But as demonstrated by the Project Forum report, youth can be successfully transitioned back into their communities. However, it will take a lot of effort on the part of the juvenile justice system, communities, and social services agencies as well as the released youths and their families to succeed.