SPLC report: Children deprived of education in Florida adult jails

The educational services provided to children in Florida who are prosecuted as adults and locked up in adult jails are “seriously deficient” and, in some cases, “virtually nonexistent,” according to a report released today by the SPLC.

The study, Destined to Fail: How Florida Jails Deprive Children of Schooling , details how many jails and school districts across Florida – which prosecutes more children as adults than any other state – fail to meet state and federal obligations by providing little to no education when children are locked up in adult facilities. The report’s findings will be announced today at a news conference held by the No Place for a Child coalition at the state Capitol.

The SPLC reviewed public records from a number of school districts across the state, spoke with public defenders and advocates, examined data from the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, and interviewed children who are or have been held in county jails in Florida.

“When children are tried as and housed with adults, they are burdened with lifelong consequences, putting them on a path destined for failure,” said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the SPLC. “Because of their felony convictions, these children will struggle to find employment and housing – and will be more likely to reoffend. On top of that, these children are being deprived of an education – the one thing that might offset those obstacles and create a foundation for success. We cannot expect our youth to thrive if we lock them up, rob them of their education, and fail to rehabilitate them.”

Children of any age can be charged and sentenced as adults in Florida, and – once that happens – the law requires them to be housed in adult jails instead of juvenile facilities. Despite being incarcerated, children generally retain their rights under state and federal laws to access education. But the instruction they receive – if any – is woefully inadequate, the report found.

The analysis showed that children – whether housed in small or large jails – rarely receive the 300 minutes of instruction per day that is necessary to reach the legally required 180 instruction days per year. Instead of learning in a classroom setting, children often just receive worksheets – sometimes without a pen or pencil to complete them. Some jails only provide GED preparation, and most children do not receive credit for that work when they return to their neighborhood schools.

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for children with disabilities are not always implemented as written; others are altered, and some are effectively terminated. School districts’ Exceptional Student Education coordinators do not evaluate children in many small jails, failing to identify and provide required services for children with disabilities, the report found.

In many small jails – housing fewer than 20 children – the SPLC found that there are no housing units dedicated for children – much less classroom space. To keep children separate from adults in adult facilities, they are often housed in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day. In Indian River County, children are held in isolation and wholly denied education. The school district does not budget for a classroom or full-time teachers at the jail. In Gadsden County, one child was held in solitary confinement for more than six months with no education.

Children in large jails – housing more than 20 children – fare better, but still lack adequate instruction. While most of the larger jails provide the required instruction time, the report found that several of them fail to do so for children in solitary confinement. In order to separate co-defendants, children in Palm Beach County are held adjacent to the classroom in isolation cells that hinder their ability to hear lessons or see what the teacher writes on the board.

The SPLC’s report urges the state to stop prosecuting children as adults. Short of ending that practice, the report encourages several reforms, including limiting the number of children prosecuted as adults, ensuring that children are afforded an education while in jail, and developing systems that better coordinate between criminal justice and educational service agencies.

The Florida Legislature this year is considering SB 1552, SB 936 and HB 509, which would eliminate certain offenses and limit the number of children who are eligible to be prosecuted as adults.

SB 936 and HB 509 would also provide oversight of the “direct file” process that gives prosecutors the discretion to charge children as adults without a judge’s input and give children the opportunity to request a hearing before a judge to seek a return to juvenile court.

SB 1552 would eliminate direct file of 14-year-old children and limit direct file eligibility of 16-year-olds from all felonies to a specific list of offenses that already applies to 15-year-old children.

Children tried as adults are more likely to reoffend, increasing the risk to public safety and the cost to taxpayers who will spend $20,000 per person per year to incarcerate them. Every dollar spent on education for incarcerated people saves $4 to $5 in re-incarceration costs, according to the report.

“Florida could easily solve the problem of deficient education in jails and its costly ripple effects by keeping children in the juvenile system,” McCoy said. “The juvenile justice system is equipped to rehabilitate and educate children. Jails are not. It’s simple. Children don’t belong in adult jails.”