Juvenile Delinquency and Special Education Laws: Policy Implementation Issues and Directions for Future Research

By Morris, Richard J.; Thompson, Kristin C. | Journal of Correctional Education, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Juvenile Delinquency and Special Education Laws: Policy Implementation Issues and Directions for Future Research


Morris, Richard J., Thompson, Kristin C., Journal of Correctional Education


The research literature has repeatedly demonstrated that there is an overrepresentation of juveniles with disabilities who are incarcerated in short-term and long-term correctional facilities. Despite these findings, special education programs in many juvenile correctional facilities have been shown to be lacking many of the necessary services mandated by federal law. The present article discusses the various legal challenges and difficulties faced by juvenile correctional education programs in providing special education services to incarcerated juveniles with disabilities, as well as the legislation and case law that currently exist to protect the right to special education services for all eligible juveniles. Related policy implementation issues and suggestions for future research in this area are also discussed.

In 1979, four years after the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975), the United States federal law that mandated that all students with a disability be provided a free and appropriate public education, a juvenile inmate incarcerated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit against the state for failure to provide him and other eligible students with special education services (Green v. Johnson, 1981). The court decided that although the incarcerated status of an inmate may require adjustments in the special education programs available to him or her as compared to programs available to students who were not incarcerated, all students having a disability -regardless of their incarceration status - are entitled to special education services. This ruling was especially timely given that research over the past 30 years has repeatedly shown that a history of academic failure and educational disability are among the most prevalent characteristics of juveniles who reside in short-term detention settings or long-term correctional settings (Morris & Morris, 2006; Ollendick, 1979; Waldie & Spreen, 1993; Wang, Blomberg, & Ii, 2005; Zabel & Nigro, 1999).

In 1997, the Education for all Handicapped Children Act was reauthorized under the title, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and was again reauthorized in 2004 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA). Each reauthorization further delineated the types of special education programs and services that must be available for all eligible students, regardless of their educational placement. Although this legislation and Green v. Johnson (1981) clearly indicate that these federal regulations must apply to both public education students and incarcerated youths, subsequent litigation has demonstrated that both detention and correctional facilities have been slow to respond (Handberry v. Thompson, 2000; State of Wisconsin v. Trent, 1997). The present paper discusses the prevalence of disability in incarcerated youths, federal mandates and case law regarding the rights of incarcerated juveniles to special education services, and policy implementation issues for juvenile correctional education. Suggestions for future research in this area are also discussed.

Prevalence of Incarcerated Youth Having a Disability

The research literature suggests that there is an overrepresentation of youths with disabilities within juvenile correctional facilities, with prevalence values ranging from 20% to 100% (Bullis & Yovanoff, 2005; Bullock & McArthur, 1994; Morgan, 1979; Morris & Morris, 2006). The wide spread in percentage values may be due to a variety of factors, such as the definition of disability and/or classification system used in a particular study (e.g., use of state versus federal definitions), the specific assessment instruments) and evaluation procedure used by diagnosticians, and the methodology used by researchers in gathering the data (Bullock & McArthur, 1994; Morgan, 1979; Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford, 1985; Zabel & Nigro, 1999). …

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