Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By: Alicia Augustin
Alicia Augustin is a first-year student at the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts and Sciences who plans to study Political Science and Urban Education.
“How [are] we supposed to become better people if we can’t have any normal friendships, any normal conversations, any control over what happens to us?” Quoted from Mark Salzman, True Notebooks: A Writer’s at Juvenile Hall, a juvenile behind bars questions how he is expected to develop in a system that simply does not allow it.
Despite a recent trend of youth incarceration rates declining, 48,000 minors in the United States are labeled as “juveniles,” living their lives within the carceral system . These juveniles of various ages below 18 develop within a system that controls every aspect of their lives, being told when it is appropriate to eat, sleep, and socialize. Losing freedom in the U.S. when committing a crime is seemingly synonymous with losing one’s natural right to life, a right declared by the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Although the Declaration of Independence is not law, it serves as the foundation for U.S. law as we know it today.
The legal systems in the U.S. cannot be interpreted as black and white, as many circumstances are too complicated to follow a set list of guidelines and rules. This justice system is based on the idea that those guilty of breaking the law must face penalties for their crimes. In many cases of high-degree felonies, perpetrators should face the full extent of the consequences that the crime warranted. However, in the case of minors most offenses committed are considered low-level such as property crimes like larceny theft . Larceny theft is defined as taking someone’s property without using violence to do so. Do they truly deserve to experience the harshness of a U.S. prison that restricts their access to important aspects of their development such as education? Probably not.
Parens patriae, or “parent of the country” in Latin, is a legal concept in the U.S. that establishes that the government should become the “parent” of an individual who cannot take care of themself . When applied to juvenile justice, this concept deems juveniles as individuals who not only lack the ability to take care of themselves, but whose parents are also labeled as unable to care for them . Therefore, the state assumes the full responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of the minor in the carceral system. Part of that well being should include viable options for minors to obtain quality education.
According to a study by Ergin Gashi, a researcher in languages, cultures and communication, two of the biggest problems faced by prison education systems are classroom management and teacher preparation . An effective education system is difficult to produce in a free world, but it is two times harder to achieve effectiveness in a prison system . Gashi argues that additional training and preparation is a necessity in prison education because prisoners have more mental, emotional, and social needs . Gashi highlights that teachers in prison education do not have full control over their classroom, they are instead monitored and held to strict rules . This prevents teachers from being effective in reaching their students, which is important for academic success. Gashi suggests that in addition to professional, mental, and emotional training, teachers must have full autonomy in the classroom . Teachers should be able to connect to their students and treat them as human beings who need to learn rather than prisoners.
Juveniles who are still in a development stage risk hindering their growth with a lack of quality education. To ensure that juvenile prisoners are receiving quality education in the prison system, they need to be acknowledged and treated like human beings. However, the U.S. carceral system would rather strip away their humanity as a tactic of control. Proper education would allow these incarcerated children the chance to rebuild their lives both during and after their release. With better educational opportunities available to them within their rehabilitation, they are presented with more personal and professional skills and opportunities upon release. These skills could help them avoid the pitfalls of becoming a repeat offender
An incentive for prison reformers to work on improving prison education is that it can aid in reducing recidivism rates. Recidivism refers to a prisoner's relapse into criminal activity . When specifically looking at juvenile recidivism rates, here is data to support that juveniles are more likely to reoffend than adults . In 2015, the CSG Justice Center report collected data from 39 states finding that 76% of juveniles reoffend within three years after release and 84% reoffend within five years . A cause of high juvenile recidivism rates is that prison keeps juveniles away from gaining skills, which is directly related to education attainment . A focus on improving the lives of juvenile offenders rather than strict incarceration can keep juveniles away from crime, this article even suggests neglecting incarceration altogether . Therefore, implementing effective education systems into prisons can allow juveniles to improve their lives if they must be kept behind bars.
A great place to start would be to implement legal education into the prison education curriculum. Yichen Wang, a researcher in ideological and political education, contends that basic youth legal education is lacking and that school resources should be used to improve it . Wang says that the lack of legal education is a mistake by both schools and parents that causes juvenile delinquency . Surely juveniles should understand the system that keeps them in prison in the first place. Additionally, understanding the system can prevent them from becoming caught in it again. Legal education in the prison can look like teaching juveniles about the constitution and how it outlines the structure of the U.S. government. Everyone, especially children already in the legal system, should learn about their rights. No one should ever be barred from becoming better citizens simply because they're currently behind bars.
 Sawyer, Wendy. “Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie 2019.” Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie 2019 | Prison Policy Initiative,
 Ingram, Mark, and John Ryals. Family Engagement and Juvenile Justice: The Evolution of Parens Patriae. https://www.rfknrcjj.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Family-Engagement-and-Juvenile-Justice-The-Evolution-of-Parens-Patriae.pdf.
 Gashi, Ergin. “Prison Education Characteristics and Classroom Management by Prison Teachers.” SEEU Review, vol. 16, no. 2, 2021, pp. 104–113., https://doi.org/10.2478/seeur-2021-0023.
 NIJ (see reuse. “Recidivism.” National Institute of Justice, https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/corrections/recidivism.
 Schueneman, Thomas. “Juvenile Recidivism Rates: What They Are and How to Reduce Them.” Point Park University Online, 25 May 2021, https://online.pointpark.edu/criminal-justice/juvenile-recidivism/.
 Wang, Yichen. “Analysis on the Perfection of My Country’s Juvenile Legal Education System Based on Computer.” Journal of Physics: Conference Series, vol. 1744, no. 4, 2021, p. 042072., https://doi.org/10.1088/1742-6596/1744/4/042072.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.