NYCDS Testifies on Education Programming in Jails and Juvenile Detention
Nikki D. Woods
Senior Trial Attorney – Juvenile Defense Unit
New York County Defender Services
Committee on Education
Jointly with the Committee on Criminal Justice and the Committee on General Welfare
Oversight – Education Programming in Jails and Juvenile Detention
April 21, 2021
My name is Nikki Woods and I am a Senior Trial Attorney with the Juvenile Defense Unit at New York County Defender Services (NYCDS). We are a public defense office that represents New Yorkers in thousands of cases in Manhattan’s Criminal Court and Supreme Court every year, and our Juvenile Defense Unit represents children in felony “Raise the Age” cases in both Supreme Court and Family Court. While I am currently a juvenile public defender, I have been advocating for the educational rights of children for a decade. Thank you to Chairs Treyger, Powers and Levin for holding this hearing on Education Programming in Jails and Juvenile Detention.
My team represents some of the most vulnerable people in our city – children charged with crimes, some of whom are incarcerated, and many of whom are in dire need of educational support, vocational services, and career-development resources. Raise the Age has allowed for older youth to be incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities and jails, but these facilities do not offer enough access to age-appropriate educational and vocational programs. First, NYCDS calls on City Council to increase educational offerings in juvenile detention and placement facilities, as well as city jails, to include college courses. Second, for all students, but particularly those who may not be college-bound, there is a need for enhanced vocational training, career planning services and information about and access to career opportunities. Third, students with special needs also require and should be afforded one-on-one tutoring services and additional supports. Finally, we support Int. 1224, Council Member Dromm’s reporting bill, and urge the Council to pass it.
- Current Educational Services for Raise the Age Youth
Raise the Age has changed who is in juvenile detention and placement facilities. We are now more than two years past the implementation of Raise the Age, and with that, there are now many youths who are 18 and over in detention and Close-to-Home placements. Many of these older youth entering detention or placement have not regularly attended school for months or even years prior to their detention. To address that, Passages Academy offers two educational paths for youth in custody: a traditional path towards a High School diploma and a path to earn a High School Equivalency (“HSE”) Diploma. I have had several clients who have entered secure detention or a Close-to-Home placement after having been totally disenfranchised from their public school, and after time spent in Passages Academy, have made meaningful progress towards a traditional or HSE diploma. I have one client who entered Crossroads at the age of 17. Prior to his incarceration, this client had not attended school for more than two years, and when he was there last, he was in 7th grade. Once incarcerated, my client was enrolled in Passages Academy, and in the span of about 11 months, he was able to earn enough credits to “move up” to high school. Once in high school, my client was then eligible to enroll in an HSE program, which was a path better suited for his needs because of his age. I have also had several clients with similar experiences in Close-to-Home placement (“CTH or placement”). Some of these clients have been released from custody prior to earning all of their credits for graduation or before they took their TASC exam, but because they had a positive educational experience while incarcerated, they are much more likely to continue their education in the community when they are released then they would have been had they not been enrolled at Passages Academy. For these students, Passages Academy is working, but there are limits to what Passages offers these young learners.
- Incarcerated Youth Deserve Access to College Courses
While there may be some young people earning their traditional or HSE diplomas while incarcerated, this is the educational ceiling for most older youth in juvenile detention, placement or jail because older youth have little to no access to college courses in those penal settings. Children should not be in jail, but so long as our current systems continue to incarcerate young people, age-appropriate educational, vocational and career-development services must be made available to all young people in custody. Offering college courses to incarcerated youth is not just a cost for the city, it is an investment in our future. Because of Raise the Age, youth serving state sentences remain in secure detention until the age of 21. If they, or their peers in other placement facilities, are able to spend that time earning college credits, and possibly even a degree, they will be in a much better position to get a job when they are released to the community which can drastically reduce recidivism rates and provide these young people with greater access to financial stability. For those youth serving longer sentences in secure detention, they will eventually be transferred to DOC custody to finish their sentence. Not all DOC facilities allow inmates to access college courses. If our older youth have access to college in secure juvenile detention, juvenile defenders and advocates will have a better chance to advocate that these youth be transferred to a a DOC prison that offers college courses because of their previous enrollment in college courses in juvenile detention. Young people need access to higher education, vocational training and career development programs in order to ensure a more successful reintegration to their communities. Offering college access to older incarcerated youth in detention and jails is not only the right thing to do for these children and their families but is makes economic sense for our city.
- Incarcerated Youth Should Be Afforded Access to Vocational Skills Training and Career Planning
Not all older youth are college bound. While there is some vocational programming available to youth in secure detention, there are little to no on-site vocational programs available to youth in non-secure detention or close-to-home placement. The setting that is most lacking in these services is non-secure detention. Besides Passages Academy, there are few if any other educational or vocational programs available to older youth in non-secure detention. There must be an expansion of vocational programming available to older youth in non-secure detention. Without this, the time these youth spend in detention will in no way offer them a chance to improve their lives when they are released. There must also be an expansion of career planning services and career opportunities available to older youth leaving Close-to-Home placements and going on Aftercare. When a 19-year-old leaves placement with either a high school or HSE diploma, they are not guaranteed employment, and without that financial stability, a successful reentry is questionable. Many older youths released from placement do not go back to live with their family. Aftercare services must specifically address the needs of these older youth by creating partnerships with more age-appropriate community organizations that connect them with jobs upon their release so that they can be financially stable. These older youth need access to age-appropriate re-entry services. Aftercare planning must include services that help them not only access jobs, but also provide them access to higher education and vocational training and certification programs. Without these supports, our older youth will flounder once back in the community.
- Additional Supports are Needed for Youth with Special Needs
One final area where educational programming in detention and jails is lacking is its near failure to provide substantive one-to-one tutoring and other specialized educational services for youth with special needs in detention and jails. Many youth in detention and jails have an Individualized Education Program (“IEP”). Under Federal Law, schools in juvenile detention centers and in jails that house people up through the age of 21, like public schools, are required to identify, locate and evaluate all children with disabilities who may need special education and related services. 20 U.S.C Sec.1412(a)(30(A). So many young people enter detention and jail after years of disengagement from school, and it is the responsibility of jails and juvenile detention centers to assess and evaluate all students that they believe may have special needs. This is not happening at all in Rikers and it is rarely happening in Crossroads and Horizons. Indeed, many of these youth have failed to receive appropriate educational services in the past. They are vastly under-credited for their age and many have tremendous learning deficits. These students with identified learning challenges may struggle in a traditional classroom settings. Greater access to one-to-one tutoring will provide these young learners who are struggling in Passages Academy individualized educational instruction, which is required by law, and will make their time spent in custody more meaningful to their future.
- 1224-2018 - A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to requiring the department of education, the administration for children's services and the department of correction to report on educational programming for juvenile delinquents, juvenile offenders and adolescent offenders
NYCDS strongly supports Intro. 1224-2018 and urges the Council to pass it. Accountability and transparency through data reporting is one of the most effective ways for the City to implement real changes to the educational services provided to our system-involved youth. Intro. 1224 will help to produce data that will show how existing educational and vocational programs in juvenile detention and jails must change to accommodate the needs of an older population of youth in custody. The report would also include statistics on educational programming enrollment, available services, rates of violence for such delinquents and offenders, and other related indicators. This data will enable educators and juvenile advocates to identify deficiencies in the current educational programming available to incarcerated youth which will allow for the creation of specifically tailored educational programing that addresses the needs of older youth in custody. This law will also expose the violence that our youth suffer while incarcerated because the rate at which our young people are subjected to violence in juvenile detention and jails is vastly underreported. Exposing this violence, whether at the hands of peers or detention staff, is crucial to creating better systems of accountability, and for building programming that immediately addresses violence in detention and jail.
Increasing youth access to age-appropriate education, vocational and reentry services while they are in detention or jail will most certainly build stronger, safer communities and families. By building on existing educational and vocational programs, creating more opportunities for youth to receive one-on-one tutoring, and expanding access to college, we can achieve more positive outcomes for our incarcerated youth. Nearly all of my clients are male-identifying, black and brown young people. Virtually all of my clients have experienced intergenerational trauma, oppression and violence through systemic racism, and generational poverty, but, nevertheless, they are incredibly resilient. If our young people are given access to more meaningful educational and vocational services while they are incarcerated, there may be no limit to what they can achieve in the future.
Thank you again for your attention to this important issue for our city’s most vulnerable young people. If you have any questions about my testimony, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.