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Blog Post

Closing the Opportunity Gap for America’s Young People

By Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. and Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs Karol V. Mason

When President Obama launched his My Brother’s Keeper initiative two years ago, he said, “[w]e need to give every child, no matter what they look like, where they live, the chance to reach their full potential.  Because if we do. . . then not only will they contribute to the growth and prosperity of this country, but they will pass on those lessons to their children and to their grandchildren. . . And this country will be richer and stronger for it for generations to come.”

The President believes, and we believe, that all young people deserve the chance to participate fully in the American dream.  But there are too many young people who feel cut off from that opportunity, whether it’s because they lack support networks, live in impoverished communities, go to under-resourced schools, or have a parent in prison or jail.

Earlier this week, to kick off the first National Reentry Week, we had the privilege of sitting down with an impressive group of high school and college students whose parents are incarcerated in federal prisons.  At Benjamin Banneker High School, they spoke eloquently, and with insight beyond their years, of the obstacles they encounter and the burdens they bear.  One young woman, a senior, reminded us that “time doesn’t stop when a parent is incarcerated.”  As she and others explained, children of incarcerated parents are deprived of a fundamental human need – the nurturing presence of a caring adult – yet they are still expected to carry on and find their way.

We also heard from educators and supportive community members, like the U.S. Dream Academy and Mission: Launch, about steps school systems and the federal government can take to help these young people get on track to academic success and productive citizenship.  Their ideas ranged from the principled – understanding the perspectives of these youth and serving as an anchor – to the practical – creating safe spaces that allow students to talk about their circumstances and using technology to keep kids connected to their parents.

We know that more than 2.7 million children in this country have parents behind bars.  And one in five youth in custody has or is expecting children.  These young parents in particular need support if they are to meet their familial and civic responsibilities.  Under the Second Chance Act, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a component of the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs, last year awarded more than $1.2 million to expand services to children who have parents incarcerated in federal prison and an additional $3 million in mentoring grants to strengthen relationships between young fathers and their children.

One of the keys to success for any child is a solid education.  Many young people, especially those who have come into contact with the justice system, struggle to find access to quality educational opportunities, and many others have academic achievement foreclosed by harsh disciplinary policies that remove students from school for minor infractions.  A Department of Education-Department of Justice partnership called the Supportive School Discipline Initiative has provided guidance to school districts on reforming these zero-disciplinary policies so that kids remain in school and out of the justice system.

We are also helping to restore educational access to those who have already come into contact with the system.  One avenue, the federal Pell Grant program, has long been denied to individuals held in federal or state correctional institutions.  In December 2014, we issued a guidance package to state school officers and state attorneys general explaining that juvenile facilities are excluded from this category, so students in those facilities are in fact eligible for Pell Grant funding.  We went even further last summer when we announced Second Chance Pell, an experimental initiative that provides a limited waiver of the statutory ban on Pell Grant eligibility for those in federal and state institutions.

And this week, through a new Education-Justice partnership, we are making new resources available to support educational opportunities for justice-involved youth.  Research suggests that career and technical education may reduce recidivism and improve employability.  Under our Juvenile Justice Reentry Education Program, three school districts and a community college will receive grants to provide pre- and post-release career and technical education and employment and training opportunities aimed at helping young people returning from juvenile justice facilities.

Giving our young people a chance to rise to their full potential is one of our most important responsibilities – as educators, as justice system professionals, and as citizens.  Through My Brother’s Keeper and the reentry activities we are supporting across the federal government, the Obama Administration and its many local and private partners are working together to make sure that opportunity remains available to all our nation’s youth.

Updated March 3, 2017