Chalk Talks - Teaching Literacy in Order to Turn the Page on Recidivism

Article excerpt


Recidivism is not the full half of the glass. As defined by Black's Law Dictionary, recidivism is the tendency of a convicted criminal to relapse into a habit of criminal activity or behavior.1 However unlikely it is that any criminal enjoys being punished repeatedly for a string of offenses, the ugly truth is that prisoners are more likely to reenter the system than not.2 Statistics show that an alarming amount of criminals repeat their bad behavior after an initial crime.3 In a study based on a large group of prisoners released in 1994, 673% of those prisoners were arrested for another crime within three years of release.4

Often recidivism occurs with an offender who was first convicted as a juvenile. Many studies have shown that one who commits an offense as a juvenile is more likely to commit another offense as an adult.5 This raises the question: what can be done after a juvenile commits his or her first offense to prevent that juvenile from committing another crime later in life? Although there is no one-word solution to this complex problem, there is one intriguing prospect: teaching that juvenile to read.

Illiteracy and crime go hand in hand. It is startling to learn that 85% of all juveniles who come into contact with the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate.6 The Department of Justice has reported that the "link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure."7 Not coincidentally, over 70% of inmates in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.8 Furthermore, records collected from penal institutions indicate that inmates have a 16% chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help, as opposed to 70% chance for those who receive no such help.9

These statistics can no longer be ignored. Once a juvenile is detained or receives punishment for a crime, it should be of utmost importance to require that the juvenile learn to read. A recent study estimated that, by 2018, 63% of the new job openings created in this country will require workers to have had some form of postsecondary education or training.10 As a result, researchers forecasting the future job market state that "dropouts, high school graduates, and people with some college but no degree are on the down escalator of social mobility, falling out of the middle-income class and into the lower three deciles of family income."" This dim forecast for those with minimal education means that illiterate juveniles, after entering the justice system for the first time, must learn to read and complete their education to have a chance at leading successful lives as adults.


Decreasing illiteracy rates among juvenile delinquents is the key to reducing recidivism rates in the United States. This note will focus primarily on the crucial time period from the point at which a juvenile is put into detention until release, when the government has direct control over that offender and the ability to change his or her path. Incorporating reading interventions into a juvenile's detention and rehabilitation plan will give the delinquent a sense of capability and confidence, which will aid the juvenile in finding a job and staying out of trouble after being released.

Given the current economic situation, government funding is scarce for educational programs for juvenile delinquents. However, we must ensure that programs to fight illiteracy are kept in place. Reading programs are essential to an illiterate juvenile's rehabilitation process, and they will lend themselves to a safer society in the long run. These programs need supplies and staffing to be effective and run properly. Members of local communities around the nation should be encouraged to volunteer time and resources to juvenile detention centers to ensure that reading programs for the illiterate are not simply surviving, but thriving.

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