OUR OPINION: Juvenile justice education too frequently falls short

The Southern Education Foundation’s mission is to advance equity and excellence in education for all students in the South, particularly low-income students and students of color.

The foundation’s newest major report deals with juvenile justice and education in the South, focusing carefully on the problems virtually certain if education outcomes within the juvenile justice system fall short, and the disproportionate number of minority students in the system all across the South.

“Our core belief is that education is the vehicle by which all students get fair chances to develop their talents and contribute to the common good,” the foundation’s description of itself says, and it is undoubtedly correct because it is true for all students, whether troubled or not.

Mississippi, which predictably has serious problems in the broader understanding of juvenile justice and education, also has made some progress in the past decade in moving juveniles out of confinement, a 63 percent reduction.

But, as the SEF reports, “Today any juvenile justice system that does not place education for young people as the essential, central element of rehabilitation and prevention has failed to adapt to the changing nature of the American economy and imperative for a good life. The world economy that has flattened global markets, including labor markets, has created a necessity for most young people in the United States, including troubled youth, to attain higher levels of education. To achieve its fundamental purposes of both helping young people in custody and benefiting the society as a whole, juvenile justice systems must accomplish its historical purposes today by transforming into educational institutions first and foremost.”

“There can be little or no gains in rehabilitation or decline in recidivism, and there will be little chance for a young person to develop a better life as a self-supporting adult if the juvenile justice systems in the South and the nation fail to improve the education of the youth in their custody.”

In Mississippi, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports in its special Mississippi project, “the incarceration rate for African-American children is double the rate for white children,” and “the overwhelming majority of incarcerated juveniles are low-level, non-violent offenders; and, almost 40 percent of public school children drop out….”

Lack of adequate funding to be effective is frequently cited as one of Mississippi’s chief issues in dealing with juvenile justice education.

Mississippi’s public education and justice leaders should study SEF’s report to see what light it might shed on Mississippi’s issues.