Adolescents in the juvenile justice system have a right to comparable education as their peers in public school settings. Interestingly, the existing literature indicates that this is not always the case. This study explored the experience of earning a high school diploma or equivalent in a juvenile correctional facility in Pennsylvania. We framed our study within Bandura’s social cognitive theory. This study was guided by the following research question: How do former youth offenders describe their experiences obtaining a high school diploma or equivalent in a juvenile correctional facility in Pennsylvania? This qualitative study employed a hermeneutic phenomenology research design. Purposeful criterion and snowball sampling were used to recruit ten former juvenile offenders in Pennsylvania for this study. We collected data through survey responses, one-on-one semi-structured interviews, and reflexive memos. Our findings indicated that having access to academic support was crucial to the participants’ educational experiences. Implications of the study’s findings, limitations, and recommendations for future research are also discussed.
Keywords: juvenile correctional education, high school education, academic achievement, social cognitive theory, juvenile justice
In the United States, approximately 48,000 youth are confined in juvenile and adult correctional facilities daily (Sawyer, 2019). Similar to other adolescents, youth in the justice system have a right to high-quality education (Development Services Group, 2019; Steele et al., 2016). Though educational achievement has been discussed as a factor in crime prevention (Abeling-Judge, 2019), there is a higher academic failure rate among justice-involved youth than other children (Johnson, 2018; Kremer & Vaughn, 2019). Only a few states provide comparable educational and vocational programs to incarcerated and non-incarcerated youth (Tannis, 2017). Such shortcomings might contribute to this student demographic’s low academic achievement level. The existing literature indicates that juvenile residential facilities’ high school education completion rate is significantly low compared to students in public school settings (Development Services Group, 2019). According to Gertseva and McCurley (2019), the high school graduation rate for non-incarcerated students was 72% compared to 16% for incarcerated students.
Educational achievement has been discussed theoretically and empirically in peer-reviewed literature as a factor in crime prevention (Abeling-Judge, 2019; Ciorbaru, 2018; Machin et al., 2011). Current research emphasizes the benefits of completing formal education (Taheri & Welch, 2016) since high school completion results in significant crime reduction among male adolescents (Lochner, 1999). Researchers have also articulated the association between youth academic underachievement and delinquent behavior (Azad & Ginner Hau, 2020; Fernández-Suárez et al., 2016). Unfortunately, the quality of instruction in these correctional education programs tends to be less than that of traditional high school programs, and these substandard curricula do not align with state standards (Morris, 2014; National Juvenile Justice Network, 2016). This qualitative study aimed to explore how former youth offenders describe their shared experiences of obtaining a high school diploma or equivalent in a juvenile correctional facility in Pennsylvania.
Completing high school is an essential aspect of upward mobility, as numerous benefits are associated with graduating (Rossi & Bower, 2018). High school completion has been established as a predictor of long-term morbidity and mortality (Hahn et al., 2015). Among the 26 leading health indicators for Healthy People 2020 is on-time high school graduation (Qu et al., 2016). Completing a high school diploma or equivalent is typically a requirement for admission into postsecondary and degree-seeking programs (Jepsen et al., 2017). Moreover, many higher education institutions base their admissions decisions on high school performance and test scores (Cerdeira et al., 2018). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2019), the national adjusted cohort graduation rate for public high school students was 85 percent in the 2016-17 school year, the highest since the first measurement of graduation rates in 2010-11. Specifically, in Pennsylvania, the graduation rate during the 2016-17 school year was 87%.
Despite a steady rise in graduation rates over the last five decades, more than 500,000 students still drop out of high school (McFarland et al., 2016; Rosen et al., 2019). The dropout rate is especially notable among students of racial and ethnic minorities, with close to 50% of African-American and Hispanic students not graduating with their initial class (Rossi & Bower, 2018). Like racial and ethnic minorities, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are also at a higher risk of dropping out of high school (Joo & Kim, 2016). Youth in juvenile correctional education programs are also at an increased risk of not completing their high school education. According to the Development Services Group (2019), the high school education completion rate in juvenile residential facilities is significantly low due to factors typically associated with young offenders (e.g., low IQ and academic achievement, greater need for special education, grade repetition, and school dropout). Youth offenders’ literacy and academic achievement rarely exceed the elementary school level (National Juvenile Justice Network, 2016; Steele et al., 2016). Additional issues further complicate the educational attainment of youth offenders. Steele et al. (2016) noted that juvenile offenders are likelier than their nonoffenders to experience emotional problems, substance abuse issues, and special education needs.
There has been substantial interest in the influence of education on juvenile delinquency (Hoffman, 2018). Accordingly, there is no shortage of studies examining the relationship between education and juvenile delinquency (Azad & Ginner Hau, 2018; 2020; Fernández-Suárez et al., 2016; Hoffman, 2018; Kim, 2020; Makarios et al., 2017; Robison et al., 2017). For example, Kim (2020) posited that lower educational attainment is one of the most widely studied negative consequences of delinquent behavior. However, Hirschfield (2017) claimed that few criminologists had established the impact of school factors on delinquency because most studies, especially those that use cross-sectional analyses, fail to address selection bias satisfactorily. Since most previous work has been unable to address this, further research is needed to improve our empirical understanding of school factors’ impact on juvenile delinquency.
This study was framed within the theoretical lens of Bandura’s social cognitive theory (SCT). Bandura’s (1989) social cognitive perspective suggests that social factors play an influential role in cognitive development, and there are many motivators of the pursuit of competence. We were interested in understanding whether environmental influences may have shaped the educational experiences of these former youth offenders. The current literature indicates that positive school experiences, such as relationships with school staff, can lead to positive academic outcomes (Blomberg et al., 2011; Johnson, 2018). Hence, SCT was identified as the appropriate theoretical framework since the study aimed to explore former youth offenders’ experiences of completing their high school education in a juvenile correctional facility. Notably, SCT assists in explaining how environmental factors can influence behavior, including educational pursuits. The SCT suggests that learning occurs by observing others’ behaviors, developing competencies, establishing goals, and responding to feedback. Hence, this study aimed to support Bandura’s SCT by exploring whether social interactions within a juvenile correctional educational setting influence high school completion rate.
Cage (2019) conducted qualitative research to share the marginalized voices of incarcerated adult students in Louisiana. This study aimed to understand why people enrolled in prison courses and the perceived benefits of taking classes while incarcerated. Bandura’s SCT was one of the theoretical lenses through which the researcher sought to understand students’ perceptions of correctional education. This study emphasized that prisoners tend to have lower academic achievement levels because they are exposed to individuals with low levels of academic achievement. Conversely, Cage asserted that the SCT suggests increased exposure to educational settings means prisoners are likelier to behave like educated people. The SCT indicates that environmental factors can positively or negatively influence an individual’s behavior (Bandura, 1995). For instance, one of the participants in Cage’s study stated that he had several opportunities to become involved in harmful activities within the prison. However, he chose to participate in positive activities such as correctional education.
To understand how former juvenile offenders narrate the experience of completing their education in a juvenile correctional facility in Pennsylvania, the following research question guided this study:
RQ: How do former youth offenders describe their lived experiences of obtaining a high school diploma or equivalent in a juvenile correctional facility in Pennsylvania?
This qualitative study employed a hermeneutic phenomenological approach to understanding the shared educational experiences of former juvenile offenders while pursuing their education in a juvenile correctional facility. Phenomenology is one of several qualitative research approaches. According to Creswell and Poth (2018), phenomenological research involves studying the lived experience of a concept or phenomenon. They defined a phenomenon as the researcher’s central idea. We choose hermeneutic phenomenology since it concerns human experiences as it is lived (Laverty, 2003). Hermeneutic phenomenology involves research oriented toward lived experiences and interpreting the text of life (Creswell & Poth, 2018). While transcendental phenomenology allows for description, we also wanted to interpret the lived educational experiences of the participants, which is the goal of hermeneutic phenomenology (Creswell & Poth, 2018).
The participants of this study include ten former juvenile offenders who completed their high school diploma or equivalent in a juvenile correctional facility in Pennsylvania. The number of participants in this study met the sample size recommendation for a phenomenological study (Creswell & Poth, 2018). Therefore, we used purposeful criterion and snowball sampling to select participants for this study. Purposeful sampling is an appropriate technique for qualitative researchers to identify and choose information-rich cases (Palinkas et al., 2015). Criterion sampling was suitable for this study because the participants must meet specific eligibility criteria. Each participant had to be at least 18 years old and had completed a high school diploma or equivalent in a juvenile correctional facility in Pennsylvania. The potential participants also could not be involved with the juvenile justice system, including not being on probation or parole nor incarcerated, to avoid the issues of studying a protected population. Snowball sampling is based on a referral technique in which cases of interest are identified through people who know others who generally know of information-rich cases (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Palinkas et al., 2015). Thus, using a snowball sampling strategy, one participant may know other former juvenile offenders eligible for the study.
Safeguarding the participants’ confidentiality is the researchers’ ethical responsibility (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2018). Hence, we assigned each participant in this study a pseudonym or fake name to protect their identities (Allen & Wiles, 2016). The pseudonyms were chosen and refined in collaboration with the participants during their interviews. Furthermore, following recommendations by Allen and Wiles, we considered the participants’ thoughts and dignity regarding gender, culture, and location when choosing each pseudonym.
Table 1. Participant Demographics
High School Qualification
Native-American/ African American
We began data collection with approval from Liberty University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB-FY20-21-44). I (first author) started the recruitment of participants by posting the recruitment flyer on my social media profiles (Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn). Once contacted by a potential participant, I determined eligibility using a verbal or written script. Eligible participants were sent an informed consent form to be signed electronically. Once completed, participants were sent a link to a survey. Next, a mutually agreed time was chosen for a Zoom video interview. The interviews were audio-recorded for transcription and data analysis. The participants were allowed to check the transcripts for accuracy. Once member checking was completed, I sent each participant a $15 VISA e-gift card.
We collected data using a survey, interviews, and reflexive memos. Multiple data collection methods allowed for data triangulation, which helps to provide a deeper understanding of the phenomenon being studied (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2018). First, we administered a survey containing 11 questions (seven close-ended and four open-ended). The close-ended questions and one open-ended question solicited information on the participants’ backgrounds and demographics, while the remaining open-ended questions aimed to obtain data that would assist with answering the research question. Although surveys are typically easy to administer, they are often of little value when used alone in qualitative research (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2018). Hence, we supplemented the survey with interviews and reflexive memos.
Interviews are the primary method used to collect data in qualitative research (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2018; Creswell & Poth, 2018). We recognized the importance of using interviews to obtain a thick and rich description of each participant’s lived educational experience of obtaining their high school education in a juvenile correctional facility. An interview guide containing 12 open-ended questions, some of which had sub-questions, was used to follow a general inquiry plan (Bhattacharya, 2017). The interviews lasted between 25-45 minutes. Lastly, I (first author) used journal-style entries to document information about the participants and the phenomenon (Saldaña, 2016). Through these reflexive notes, I could write about the data I obtained regarding the participants’ lived educational experiences in juvenile correctional facilities in Pennsylvania.
After transcribing the data, the transcripts were read using a line-by-line approach (van Manen, 1990). Reading the transcript multiple times allows the researcher to understand the data’s initial meaning (Pratt-Erikson et al., 2014). During the first coding cycle, I (the first author) acclimatized myself with each participant’s words to describe their lives, perspectives, and worldviews (Glesne, 2016; Saldaña, 2016). For the second cycle coding, I used pattern coding, which Elliot (2018) suggested is valuable when the researcher wants to combine material into a smaller number of more meaningful units. Next, I uploaded the transcripts and survey responses to NVivo 12 Plus – a qualitative data analysis software – to assist with generating codes, themes, and sub-themes.
To increase the trustworthiness of our study, we sought to maximize credibility, dependability, and conformability. Credibility refers to whether the research accurately represents the participants’ perceptions (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2018). I (first author) ensured credibility in this study by journaling, triangulating the data, conducting member checks, and obtaining rich data. Dependability involves ensuring that the process of inquiry is documented, logical, and traceable (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2018; Patton, 2015). We increased this study’s dependability through triangulation by articulating how each data collection method was relevant to the research design and research questions. Confirmability requires the researcher to demonstrate how the conclusions were drawn to show that the findings and interpretations originated from the data (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2018). Hence, I (the first author) continuously used reflexive notes to record my observations and biases to ensure that only the participants’ data were included in the analysis. Finally, we did not aim for generalization in this study since qualitative research is not concerned with producing results that can be generalized to other people and settings (Bhattacharya, 2017; Bloomberg & Volpe, 2018; Morgan, 2014). Instead, we wanted our findings to highlight the meaning of each participant’s lived experiences, which might apply to a broader context while maintaining content-specific richness (Bhattacharya, 2017; Bloomberg & Volpe, 2018).
The study participants shared their lived educational experiences in a juvenile correctional facility in Pennsylvania through survey responses and one-on-one interviews. The reflexive memos were used to aid in interpreting the participants’ lived experiences. The data from the survey and interviews were coded and developed into themes. Consequently, three themes emerged: 1) Academic Support, 2) Curriculum and Instruction, and 3) Community Integration. In addition, we developed each theme into sub-themes, which was essential in answering the study’s research question.
Table 2. Themes and Related Codes
Access to Extra Help
Lack of Teacher Concern
Access to Special Education
Curriculum and Instruction
Academic support emerged as the primary theme during the analysis of the data. This theme was present in several of the participants’ responses. The academic support theme addressed various types of assistance available or unavailable to the participants during their educational pursuits. Although teachers were generally seen as the primary source of academic support, the participants were asked to consider academic support provided by a teacher’s aide, social worker, psychologist, counselor, and other staff. Academic support was coded into three sub-themes: access to extra help, lack of teacher concern, and access to special education.
Access to extra help is sometimes necessary for students in a learning environment. Eight participants (Carter, Daniel, Hakim, Pedro, Raquel, Shane, Quan, and Rasheed) in this study reported having access to extra help when needed. However, excerpts from Daniel and Hakim are presented. Daniel stated:
For every placement, there’s always like your teacher or an aide in the class, so if you need help, there’s always somebody there that can help you. For like my GED, whenever I was getting my GED tests, that was hands-on. That was one-on-one, like they helped me get it all the way through there. Like worked with me one-on-one every day for almost a month. And then I passed.
The literature indicates that juvenile correctional facilities often prioritize safety and security (Korman et al., 2019). Hence, students may receive fewer hours of academic instruction and support in the interest of security. Although Hakim acknowledged that he had access to extra help, he shared how security concerns could disrupt his education at a moment’s notice. For instance, he stated:
Due to you being in a placement, one person can always ruin that for you… As soon as a fight breaks out or something like that. Yeah, that tutoring class, that [expletive] over with, you feel what I’m saying? I don’t got that tutor class no more.
Teachers’ lack of concern and interest towards students was evident among three participants (Valentino, James, and Pedro) shared experiences. There are several reasons why teachers may exhibit a lack of concern, including low morale, unsafe learning environments, and low self-efficacy. Research is needed to understand how teachers and students influence each other over time and how teachers develop and maintain their self-efficacy and that of their students (Schunk & DiBenedetto, 2020). To demonstrate a lack of teacher concern, Valentino stated:
Well, my education there was kinda trash for real, because lot of them teachers ain’t really care about if you learn or not. They basically let me figure out stuff on my own using a tablet, and the education was a cakewalk. I mean, they let everyone pass for real, for real.
James shared his less-than-favorable experience regarding the lack of concern shown by his teachers. He felt the program’s treatment goals took precedence over his educational needs. He stated:
There was no, almost no support except from your counselor or the social worker but this wasn’t with no book stuff. They basically was helping me with anger management and substance abuse stuff, you know, the treatment stuff. We had different teachers for each subject, but they don’t pay you much attention. Even for someone like me, I had an IEP [individualized education program] plan in there.
Although Pedro admitted he had access to extra academic support when needed, he also held a negative view of teachers’ concern for their students. He stated, “They don’t really teach you. Let me say they don’t teach you that much. Those staff just be there to get paid. It’s just the money for them. They don’t care for the kids.”
Only four (James, Daniel, Pedro, and Rasheed) of the ten participants indicated that they needed or were provided with special education services. The remaining six participants stated that these services were not required. James’ experience supports the existing literature, which indicates that some juvenile facilities fail to provide students with the special education services mandated by law (Miller, 2019). James stated, “Bro, like I was telling you, I got no special treatment even though I had an IEP plan. They never enforced it, and I just had to seek out people who could help me.” On the other hand, Daniel shared a different view of the special education services he experienced:
They helped me… I didn’t have to complete the work as fast as other students. But, like, I still had to get it completed, and if I needed help, I got help… They would make me do like an extra class in the dorm, or help me with my work, you know. They will be there to help me…. I mean, they helped me with the IEP stuff.
Curriculum and instruction emerged as the second theme in this study. The participants were asked to describe their educational experiences in a juvenile correctional facility. The participants’ narrated responses addressed various aspects of their education, though some were discussed more than others. Hence, the curriculum and instruction theme was coded into three sub-themes: coursework rigor, instructional delivery, and learning activities.
The existing literature indicates that the quality of the curriculum in juvenile correctional facilities tends to be subpar compared to traditional high schools (Korman et al., 2019; Leone & Wruble, 2015; National Juvenile Justice Network, 2016). Though none of the survey or interview questions specifically asked the participants about the coursework quality they experienced, Hakim and James shared their perceptions regarding its rigor. Hakim wrote, “The Work Was Way To [sic] Easy . . I Feel Like They Was Just Preparing Me For Jails And Not Schooling.” James noted, “The curriculum was cake, and it freed up time for me to learn about [expletive] I was interested in.” Four participants (Hakim, James, Valentino, and Quan) shared their perceptions of the coursework rigor. Excerpts from Hakim and Quan are presented. Hakim stated:
The only issue for me. It might sound like a little confusing. As the work, the work not being as complicated, it wasn’t that difficult. Yeah, it was just easy. Oh no, maybe I’m too smart, but I think it was too easy… I mean, I used to ask for harder work. But you see we’re about 10 other kids that’s the same age as you, you’re not going to just be like, out loud willingly, “yo, can I get some harder work?”
Quan stated, “It [coursework] was dumb down, it was, it was like a water challenge. It wasn’t like something that would take you farther and farther.”
Some participants shared their experiences with the delivery of instruction utilized in the educational journey in a juvenile correctional facility. Carter, Valentino, and Quan described their experiences using computers as the primary instruction tool, which they saw as an independent learning model instead of instructor-led. Carter shared that he had a horrible experience with online-based learning at a particular juvenile placement before eventually earning his high school diploma at a different placement facility. He stated:
Certainly, it wasn’t, it wasn’t that great, because let me tell you the reason why is, like, the system we use on the computer, I didn’t like it, like you really don’t learn much on the computer just sitting there like that. And then when you ask the staff for help. Most likely they don’t help you… So, it was pretty much it’s self-learning, teaching yourself.
He shared that the teachers at a particular placement facility did not utilize a whiteboard to aid instructional delivery. He stated:
You know how in the regular high school teachers help you out. They write stuff on the board. If you don’t get it, raise your hand… When I got there I thought the classroom was gonna be like teachers writing on the whiteboard, right, because they had whiteboards there too... So, I pull out my computer, and I’m like what is this. I got a username and password to log into the system. With the computer system, they don’t, they don’t help you at all. They talk about figure it out or do it on your own.
This sub-theme emerged from the variety of learning activities the participants experienced during their educational pursuits in a juvenile correctional placement facility. Three participants (Daniel, Carter, and Valentino) described that their learning activities primarily involved multiple-choice quizzes. Daniel stated:
It was mostly completing these multiple-choice tests on the computer. There was workbooks too, to prepare you to pass the GED. I had to do a bunch of these tests in the book where you choose the right answer. I kinda, I like it because sometimes you can guess, but they also teach me how to do essays.
He further stated:
I did hands-on stuff in the workshops and stuff like that. Anything that would make me feel like I’d be able to get my education better in life, like having a better education, like not just to get a GED but to have security. I would ask like certain workshop teachers to give me different types of like measurement draw outs, better my measurements, and stuff like that. Math, I really didn’t do nothing on. I always watch science videos to learn more science stuff.
Carter described how multiple-choice quizzes did not provide real learning as he was sometimes forced to guess his way through the learning materials. He stated:
“They know they give you multiple choice answers…, so I’m just like, you’re not helping us out, so I’m just going to guess, so I was guessing my whole time there.”
The literature indicates numerous benefits associated with completing high school-level education, such as economic, postsecondary school admissions, and desistance from crime (Abeling-Judge, 2019; Jepsen et al., 2017; Rossi & Bower, 2018). Therefore, participants were asked to share how their educational achievement (high school diploma or equivalent) assisted their transition back to the community. The participants’ varied responses coded community reintegration into three sub-themes: recidivism, job opportunities, and further education.
Six participants (Raquel, Pedro, Rasheed, Valentino, Shane, and Carter) were not re-arrested after earning their high school qualification and leaving a juvenile placement facility. However, four participants (Hakim, Daniel, James, and Quan) re-offended, in some cases, multiple times. Quan described that he had re-offended since leaving placement and was trying to stay out of trouble. However, excerpts from Daniel and Hakim are presented. Daniel shared his multiple experiences with juvenile and adult correctional facilities after earning his GED in a juvenile correctional facility. He stated:
I was in and out of other placements and jails when I got my GED. I was, I was sentenced to a year in the county [jail]. I came home, and I got booked again. I was on probation until last December. That’s when I got off.
When asked about his transition to the community, Hakim shared that he had a combination of positive and negative experiences. He stated:
I had like a positive and a negative. The only reason I said negative is because I graduated early. So, once I came home, it was like, easy for me to fall back fall back into negative stuff because I had nothing else to do. You feel what I’m saying? But in a positive aspect, if I would have looked at it and like, yeah, I graduated at 16, I could have went straight to college or went to Job Corps or something like that. I’m saying, but I wasn’t really thinking like that. I was thinking about having fun.
Most participants narrated the importance of having a high school diploma or equivalent to secure job opportunities. However, six participants (Carter, Daniel, Hakim, James, Quan, and Shane) reported being unemployed. Regardless of their employment status, most participants recognized that job opportunities are available to those with at least a high school diploma or equivalent. Examples from Daniel and Pedro are presented. Daniel stated:
Well, whenever I got my GED, it helped me. I didn’t have it from the place I was working at before, and they fired me because I didn’t have my GED. So, when I got out [of placement], I was able to get other jobs. People are more accepting of you working for them if you got a high school diploma or GED, even with a criminal background.
Pedro’s response regarding the role of his GED in his transition to the community addressed all three sub-themes under community reintegration. He stated:
It definitely helped because I got a job working full-time, and I am in my second year of college. I got nearly 40 credits at community [college] right now. I haven’t been booked again, and, uh, I ain’t getting into no trouble, for real.
Half of the participants (Cater, Hakim, Pedro, Raquel, and Shane) indicated that their highest level of education was either some college, an associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree. Pedro shared that he was pursuing an associate degree in digital forensics at a local community college. He was more than halfway through his program. Carter said he was proud to have achieved his associate degree despite taking him longer than expected. He stated:
When I ended up back in the community, I was a whole different person. I was like, I had, I was already a nerd, but wasn’t that much of a nerd, but I had became a nerd nerd. I had stayed in my life, focused on my education when I came home. When I graduated with my high school diploma, I was focused on furthering my education. So, know what I did? I went to college. I’m glad I got the education I got today even though I graduated late, but I still got my college degree.
Through online learning, Hakim and Shane pursued higher education within their respective juvenile placement facilities. However, this only happened after they earned their respective high school qualifications. Furthermore, they were able to transition back into the community with more than a high school qualification, i.e., some college credits. Hakim stated, “Yeah, and while I was at the, uh, while I was at [Placement Name] I started, I started doing college, and all that, I went to [Sample] County Community College, I started there.” Shane stated that while in placement, he took some college courses online. He said, “I had took some college classes… Yep, no after I got my diploma… Yep, it was online.”
Hermeneutic phenomenology requires the researcher to search for themes and engage with the data interpretively to understand the meaning of the participants’ lived experiences (Sloan & Bower, 2014). We used the developed themes and sub-themes to address the research question. We formulated textual descriptions of the participants’ lived educational experiences and structural characterizations of how the phenomenon was experienced. According to Bandura (1995), environmental factors can positively or negatively influence an individual’s behavior. This study extended the application of Bandura’s SCT to learning in a juvenile correctional facility. The participants demonstrated how environmental factors, such as peer influence and staff interaction, within a juvenile correctional facility positively and negatively influenced their learning. The theme, academic support, provided evidence of positive and negative educational influences. Eight participants reported having access to extra educational support from their teachers or teacher’s aide. This form of academic support allowed the participants to develop competencies crucial to their success as they earned credit towards their diploma or passed each GED section. This finding corroborates previous research indicating that students in a juvenile justice school felt the academic support they received from teachers made their coursework easier to understand (Martin, 2017).
Participants described how earning their high school diploma or equivalent assisted with their transition to the community. Six participants shared that they were not re-arrested after completing their high school education and returning to their respective communities. This finding supports previous research indicating that completing formal education reduces crime among adolescent males (Taheri & Welch, 2016; Lochner, 1999). In addition, Abeling-Judge (2019) found that individuals who earned a GED or high school diploma committed less property crime, though this did not alter the commission of violent crimes. Based on the current study’s findings related to the community reintegration theme, three of the six participants who did not recidivate earned a GED. In contrast, three earned a high school diploma. Hence, this finding supports Abeling-Judge’s result that the likelihood of committing or not committing a crime is the same among GED and diploma holders.
Kremer and Vaughn (2019) found that 87% of youth incarcerated youth in juvenile detention facilities in Western Pennsylvania aspired to attend college, which was higher than the 63% of ninth-graders in the general population who reported that they expected to attend college (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). The current study’s findings indicated that half of the participants were enrolled in or graduated from college, and one was actively applying for Fall 2021 college admissions. This finding supports the results of Kremer and Vaughn related to college aspiration among juvenile offenders. Though the current study does not show a similar overwhelming majority, 60% compared to 87%, more than half of participants aspired to attend college, comparable to the 2016 statistics for the general population (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016).
The current study’s findings do not support previous research that educational achievement has a long-term positive effect on employment (Development Services Group, 2019). The results showed that six participants (60%) reported being unemployed. Only four participants (40%) were employed, three full-time and one part-time. Hence, this study provides no significant evidence to support that earning a high school diploma or GED improves former juvenile offenders’ employment prospects post-release from a juvenile correctional facility. However, this could be due to the participants’ re-offending behavior rather than a lack of job opportunities available to holders of high school diplomas and GEDs. Of note, all four participants who reported re-offending after completing their high school-level qualification were among the six who reported being unemployed. Notably, the current study did not aim to provide results that would be generalized to other people and settings, as that is not the aim of qualitative research (Bhattacharya, 2017; Bloomberg & Volpe, 2018; Morgan, 2014). Still, it offers essential initial insights into the lived educational experiences of former juvenile offenders who completed their high school education in a juvenile justice facility.
Despite our sample size, this study reinforces practical implications for policymakers, juvenile correctional facility school administrators, and other juvenile justice staff. First, policymakers should address concerns regarding coursework rigor and access to special education services. This can be achieved by ensuring juvenile facilities are held accountable for not providing adequate educational services to justice-involved youth. While less than half of our study participants required special educational services, only two reported on the degree of access. One participant benefited from these services, while one stated he did not receive adequate support. However, the existing literature indicates that youth with learning and developmental disabilities are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system and are seven times more likely than their public school counterpart to require special education services (Burke & Dalmage, 2016; Miller, 2019; Wiggins, 2016). Moreover, students in juvenile correctional facilities have a statutory right to education comparable to public schools (Development Services Group, 2019; Leone & Wruble, 2015). Policymakers should also ensure high school completion is mandatory for all youth adjudicated to a long-term juvenile placement facility. Several benefits are associated with completing high school education (Rossi & Bower, 2018). Hence, young offenders should return to the community with as many competencies as possible, including a high school diploma or equivalent.
Second, juvenile correctional facility school administrators must ensure that educational programs are designed with input from youth offenders. Though these programs should not be created entirely on the subjective perceptions of former juvenile offenders, their experiences and perceptions should be included in the program’s decision-making process. Third, juvenile correctional education staff should provide adequate academic support for students in these programs. The findings of this study highlighted the importance of students having academic support to achieve their educational goals. Furthermore, juvenile correctional education staff should also create an environment where students can be positively influenced by staff and peers. In addition, these underserved adolescents’ positive efforts should be reinforced and supported. Finally, counselors should assist youth in juvenile correctional education programs with college and financial aid applications. The findings of our study and prior research (Kremer & Vaugh, 2019) indicate that juvenile offenders aspire to achieve a college education. However, youth who complete high school education in a juvenile correctional facility may not have the knowledge and resources to navigate the college application process. Hence, they should be provided with resources on choosing a college major, applying for admission, and financial aid to use this knowledge upon their successful return to the community.
The study’s limitations are the factors beyond the researcher’s control that restrict or constrain the study’s scope (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2018). This study, like all others, was not without limitations. One of the limitations of this study was demographic representativeness. Half of the participants identified as African American, while the remaining half identified as White, Native American/African American, Latino, and Multi-racial. This study did not include any participants identifying as American Indian, Alaskan Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander. Despite efforts to recruit a gender-diverse participant pool, only one female participated in this study. Three females responded and expressed an interest in the study during the participant recruitment stage. However, only one followed through on their interest. Moreover, this study did not include participants younger than 22 or older than 30. As some participants had completed their education several years ago, recall bias was also possible. Related to the representativeness of our sample is the issue of selection bias. Based on the snowball sampling we employed, there was the potential that participants could have referred other participants who shared very similar lived experiences. Still, we took steps to reduce selection bias by using a screening survey to ensure all participants met the same eligibility criteria for participation regardless of how they learned about the study.
Another limitation concerns the geographic representativeness of the participants. Except for one participant from Southwestern Pennsylvania, the remaining study participants were from Southeastern Pennsylvania. The remaining four regions of Pennsylvania – Northwestern, Northcentral, Southcentral, and Northeastern – were not represented. Another limitation of this study was a lack of participants with various high school diploma equivalent qualifications. The only high school diploma equivalent participants represented in the study were GED earners. No participants earned another high school diploma equivalent, such as the Commonwealth Secondary School Diploma (CSSD) or the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET). Despite its limitations, this study is an essential contribution to the existing literature on the lived educational experiences in juvenile correctional facilities.
We view the limitations of this study as an opportunity for future research. Hence, we recommend that future researchers replicate this study with participants from underrepresented and unrepresented Pennsylvania regions and throughout the United States. Research is needed to explore female youth offenders’ juvenile justice educational experiences. These individuals are underrepresented in the juvenile justice literature, highlighting the need to conduct research that focuses entirely on their experiences. Moreover, it might also be helpful to research the educational experiences and outcomes of former juvenile offenders placed in private facilities versus those placed in state-operated facilities. Finally, future research could compare the educational experiences of juveniles who successfully completed their high school education and those who were unsuccessful.
We wish to thank the young adults who took the time to participate in this study.
The authors received no financial support for this article’s research, authorship, or publication.
The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest.
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Deneil Christian is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Tennessee State University. He earned a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate in criminal justice. He also holds an MBA in General Management. Dr. Christian’s research interests include alternatives to juvenile incarceration, the academic achievement of youth offenders, and mental health issues in the juvenile justice system. His scholarly work has been published in Youth Justice, Policing and Society, and Safety & Emergency Services Journal.
Joshua Adams is a 20-year scholar-practitioner in the field of criminal justice. He is a Professor of Practice and Director of Graduate Online Programs at Arizona State University. Dr. Adams holds a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice with a concentration in Homeland Security. He has published in The Qualitative Report, Journal of Forensic Sciences, and Journal of Forensic Identification.
Carl Miedich has over 30 years of combined criminal justice experience. He retired from the Federal Bureau of Prison as a Disciplinary Hearing Officer and is now a Liberty University adjunct criminal justice faculty member. Dr. Miedich earned a PsyD. in Criminology & Justice Studies. His research interests focus on inmate disciplinary infractions.