Blueprint JD is pleased to speak with Jeree Harris, a 2011 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and a current Skadden Fellow. She is working on juvenile justice issues in Charlottesville, Virginia at the Legal Aid Justice Center.
Blueprint JD: What is the rate of incarceration for juveniles in the United States?
Jeree Harris: According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, “on any given day over 70,000 juvenile offenders are not living in their homes, but are held in residential placements (e.g. juvenile detention facilities, corrections facilities, group homes or shelters).” About 17,000 are committed to juvenile correctional facilities or state training schools.
Blueprint JD: How many of these child offenders are in adult prisons?
Jeree Harris: Based on that same report by the Campaign for Youth Justice, around 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults every year in the United States.
Blueprint JD: Obviously when we’re talking about the juvenile justice system we’re talking about kids and minors. There are still state laws requiring that people attend school up to a certain age. Do kids in prison have an opportunity to continue their education?
Jeree Harris: Yes, many states define school age as 5 years old to 20 years old, and many states have compulsory school attendance laws for youth until they are 18. If a child has a special education need, the child has a right to education until their 22nd birthday or until they graduate from high school. Generally, kids do have access to educational services while they are incarcerated. Their access can be limited if they are placed in isolation or administrative segregation but if they are eligible for special education services they should always receive education. However, in adult prisons, special education services can be suspended if the youth poses a serious security risk.
Blueprint JD: What’s education like for the incarcerated juvenile offender?
Jeree Harris: The quality of education and career and technical education courses for juveniles really varies across the country. There are some facilities that have pretty good opportunities that include college courses for youth. There is a new center called the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings. The Director, David Domenici, is a co-founder of the Maya Angelou Academy that is in one of DC’s juvenile facilities. David is actually going into juvenile facilities across the country and providing some insight into the education of incarcerated youth. For more information on what education is like for incarcerated youth, I would highly recommend checking out the center’s site.
Blueprint JD: So do juvenile offenders have a right to continue their K-12 education while incarcerated?
There is a right for students with special education needs under the IDEA. For students without special education needs, their right really depends on the laws and regulations in their state. Generally, states provide educational opportunities to incarcerated youth. A lot of times those opportunities are limited quite a bit. For example, there might be more students getting GEDs than attending regular high school courses, and not necessarily by choice.
Blueprint JD: Is there a difference in treatment between juvenile offenders tried as adults and those housed in adult facilities and those tried as juveniles and held in juvenile facilities?
Jeree Harris: Yes, there are generally more educational opportunities for youth held in juvenile facilities. Youth held in adult facilities are usually at a higher risk of being deprived of educational opportunities.
Blueprint JD: Well what happens after kids serve their sentences and are released? Do they just go back to school?
Jeree Harris: In many states, if the kid is still school-aged, there are re-enrollment regulations that help that youth return to their school district. A lot of times kids do not go directly back to their traditional middle or high school but are instead placed in alternative programs. Alternative programs are generally transition schools for youth who have been suspended or expelled from their traditional schools or for youth returning back from incarceration.
Blueprint JD: We know you work at the Charlottesville Legal Aid Justice Center with Just Children. What is it that you do in the area of juvenile justice education?
Jeree Harris: I represent youth committed to Virginia juvenile correctional centers, which are the juvenile equivalent to adult prisons. My clients have generally been deprived of their education for one reason or another, or more generally, they are receiving inadequate educational services. I also serve on a local taskforce for reducing disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system.
Blueprint JD: What do you mean by disproportionate minority contact?
Jeree Harris: Disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system is when there is a higher percentage of minority kids involved in the juvenile justice system than there are in the general population. For example, in 2009, black youth in Virginia were 22.8 percent of the population, but 81.8 percent of youth convicted in adult courts in the custody of Department of Juvenile Justice.
Blueprint JD: How did you get involved in working on juvenile justice issues?
Jeree Harris: I became interested in this issue while I was a college student. I volunteered at an alternative education program for three years and worked with youth who were suspended or expelled from their traditional schools or coming back from juvenile facilities. I became really interested in the education of youth in alternative settings. I developed a program at the alternative program called “Academic, College and Career Enrichment (ACCE),” which focused on providing the kids with enhanced educational experiences. I absolutely loved taking them to college campuses and getting them involved in service opportunities that really built their confidence. For example, I created a partnership with the local Barnes and Nobles and had the students reading to pre-K kids during a weekly reading program.
Blueprint JD: How did you hear about JustChildren?
Jeree Harris: In law school, I was lucky enough to volunteer quite a bit with the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center. I worked with them so much, I decided I wanted to work with them once I graduated from law school.
Blueprint JD: How can students interested in working on issues in juvenile justice get involved?
The best thing students can do is find organizations doing child advocacy legal work in their state and try to get as much experience with them as possible. I was a pro bono volunteer, summer intern, and clinic student with JustChildren before applying for a Skadden Fellowship to work with them. Students can also join child advocacy organizations at their law school and take general courses related to education law and juvenile justice. I also tell students from my law school (UVA Law) that they should coordinate a panel for the Conference on Public Service and the Law because it’s an excellent opportunity to network with incredible public interest attorneys in the field they want to go into.
Blueprint JD: What advice, if any, would you have for students in terms of law school course work that could get them involved?
Jeree Harris: Clinics! Clinics! Clinics! If there is a child advocacy clinic at your law school…take it! Take it now! I actually stole the line “clinics, clinics, clinics” from Susan Butler Plum who is over the Skadden Fellowship. She really emphasizes the importance of working directly with the clients you want to serve in the future. You really have to get that sort of pro bono experience to know the needs of the clients you want to serve.