Justice News

Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Remarks on Meeting the Education Needs of Incarcerated Youth
Alexandria, VA
United States
Monday, December 8, 2014

Good morning – and thank you all for being here.

I’d like to thank the dedicated public servants here at the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center for welcoming us to Alexandria today.  It’s an honor, as always, to stand among so many of the committed professionals who work tirelessly to change the lives of our young people, to get them on the right paths, and to provide the resources they need to overcome adversity and fulfill their full potential.  And it’s especially fitting that we gather at a facility where so much of this critical work takes place to make an important announcement that will help take these efforts to a new level.

It is a privilege to join my good friend, Secretary Arne Duncan – and our colleagues from the Departments of Justice and Education – in unveiling a critical new resource for improving educational systems for youth who come into contact with our juvenile justice system.

This announcement is born of the recognition that, in this great country, all children – all children – deserve equal access to a high-quality public education.  And this is no less true for children in the juvenile justice system.

In recent months, we’ve seen the emergence of a growing national dialogue about the need to ensure that America’s justice system serves everyone equally – and to instill renewed trust in that system from top to bottom – from the law enforcement officers who bravely patrol our communities, to the ways in which we use incarceration, diversion programs, reentry initiatives, and other tools to protect public safety while empowering people to become productive, law-abiding citizens.

This morning, we’re taking yet another crucial step to advance this work.  To bolster the effectiveness of our system and improve the ways in which it serves the American people.  And to ensure that system-involved youth throughout the country can imagine different futures for themselves – and then prepare for those futures by laying the groundwork of a successful path forward.

The President has underscored the urgent need for action to lift up our youth, too many of whom face an uphill climb out of poverty and crime.  His My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which aims to ensure that all young people have the opportunity to reach their full potential, specifically emphasizes the importance of strengthening correctional education for juveniles.

Through the Federal Interagency Reentry Council I convened nearly four years ago, and in close partnership with Secretary Duncan and his colleagues, the Justice Department – and particularly our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention – has been doing important work to reach out to young Americans who haven’t gotten the education they deserved while they were involved with the juvenile justice system.

We’ve learned that many of these kids received deficient instruction.  In some troubling cases, they reported receiving no instruction at all.  And still others attended class every day – which, for some, represented a pivotal change in behavior – only to find that their hard work would not count toward a high school diploma.

These findings illustrate not only an unacceptable failure – on the part of our nation – to live up to our stated commitments, but also a lost opportunity to intervene in the lives of incarcerated youth.

These issues are compounded by the thousands of young people whose futures they impact, thereby perpetuating cycles of criminality, poverty, and incarceration that can trap individuals for decades.  And they can have the effect of robbing entire communities – all across the country – of the potential and promise that these individuals have to offer.

As I’ve said many times during the six years I’ve served as Attorney General, we will never be able to incarcerate our way to better outcomes, a stronger nation, or a brighter future.  For youth especially, reducing contact with the justice system is the best hope for positive outcomes and for countering the economic challenges to state and local budgets posed by high levels of incarceration.

But for those who are in juvenile justice facilities, among the most powerful and cost-effective tools we have to ensure success after they are released are high-quality correctional education, training, and treatment.  That’s why we are working tirelessly to ensure that every young person who’s involved in the system retains access to the quality education they need to rebuild their lives and reclaim their futures.

Our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Department of Education have been collaborating to support a reentry model for youth in secure confinement that we will be pilot testing over the coming year.

And I am pleased to announce today that the Departments of Justice and Education are taking the next step in this important effort – by unveiling new guidance for strengthening the support and instruction offered in juvenile justice facilities.

A key component of this correctional education package, entitled Guiding Principles for Providing High Quality Education in Juvenile Justice Secure Care Settings, will serve as a resource for promoting educational attainment for all youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

It is our hope – and our expectation – that this document will offer a roadmap for enhancing not only their academic abilities, but also their social and emotional skills; that it will reduce the likelihood of recidivism; and that it will amplify their chances to grow, to contribute, and to succeed.

And this guidance recognizes that children in juvenile justice facilities are often the very same children who need our educational support the most – whether they are learning with disabilities or learning English as a non-native language.

The exact figures vary from study to study, but we know that roughly 20 percent of youth in juvenile justice facilities receiving Department of Education dollars have disabilities.  Yet, of those with diagnosed learning disabilities, less than half report that they are getting the services they need.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, every one of these children – including those involved with the justice system – is entitled to a free appropriate education. 

Juvenile facilities must comply with this important law.  And our new guidance will encourage the behavioral and social support services that are necessary to address the individual needs of all youth, including those with disabilities and English learners.

This guidance also recognizes that all learning environments must be safe, free of violence, and free of harassment.  And it lays out concrete principles that codify the enduring responsibility, moral imperative, and powerful incentive that our nation has to educate young people while they’re in the juvenile justice system.

In addition, today the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights are issuing a Dear Colleague letter to school districts, state educational agencies, and juvenile justice agencies, reminding these entities about the application of federal civil rights laws to recurring issues in correctional education.  The Dear Colleague letter explains how federal laws protect confined students from discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability and sex.

Together, the Guiding Principles document and the Dear Colleague letter – along with the department’s longstanding work to enforce the rights of confined youth, to ensure fairness in the juvenile justice system, and to prevent youth contact with that system whenever possible – reaffirm our strong commitment to juvenile justice reform. 

I am also pleased to note that, as you’ll hear from Secretary Duncan in just a moment, this guidance makes clear that youth who are ready to pursue higher education may be eligible to fund their studies through Pell Grants.  Offering this support is a critical element in our effort to reduce barriers to reentry.  And I commend Secretary Duncan for his leadership on this issue.

Of course, we know that young people make mistakes.  But even when those mistakes are serious enough to require placement in a juvenile correction facility, youth should not be deprived of the chance to better themselves and improve their prospects for law-abiding and productive futures.

Quality education is, and will always be, an essential component in preventing delinquency and crime.  It can empower, engage, and transform a young person’s view of him- or herself.  And it can broaden opportunities, raise expectations, and elevate every child’s sense of his or her place in the world.

So today, it is a special privilege to stand among young people who are taking the difficult but vital steps necessary to turn the page – and chart a new course – for themselves, their families, and their communities.

It takes tremendous courage to own up to past mistakes, and it takes significant resolve to plot a different path forward.  I’ve seen throughout my career in federal law enforcement that reclaiming one’s future is the challenge of a lifetime.  And I will always be proud to support – and empower – those who accept this challenge.

I want to thank you all, once again, for the opportunity to be here today.  And I’d like to turn things over to our outstanding Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who has devoted his career to advancing these efforts – and who will provide more information on this announcement.

Updated February 4, 2016