The Link Between Poverty, Truancy, and the Juvenile Justice System

By David Hornstein, CFCC Student Fellow 2014-2015

The links among poverty, school attendance rates, and delinquency are all intertwined and, when viewed as such, depict a terrifying truth. In America, over 16 million students live below the poverty line, creating a set of circumstances and problems that a large percentage of the population does not have to endure. A reality for these children could be:

  • Parents working multiple jobs, sometimes unable to take their children to school
  • Incarcerated parents
  • Children living in a group home
  • Children having to walk through a dangerous neighborhood to get to school
  • Pressures on children to work or engage in illicit activity in an effort to supplement family income

This list is not definitive; it merely scratches the surface of the problems faced by children who live in impoverished neighborhoods. As children fail to attend school for any one of the aforementioned reasons, their grades suffer. The correlation between an individual’s success in school, more specifically his/her ability to read, and incarceration is alarming. A student not reading at a third grade level by the third grade is three to four times as likely not to graduate high school on time, and this figure actually increases to six times as likely not to graduate high school on time for students from low income families. More importantly, a study conducted by Northwestern University determined high school dropouts are sixty three times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates.

These statistics should paint a picture of the importance of education, particularly elementary education. Currently, juvenile justice systems across the country have the overarching goal of rehabilitating youth offenders in an effort to reduce future encounters with the law. Interventions offered by the justice system include educational and vocational training programs, aimed at educating youth offenders so that they may receive the education and skills necessary to support themselves without living a delinquent life.

Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services currently operates 7 juvenile detention centers across the state, dealing with individuals 18 and younger who enter the justice system. Maryland could possibly reduce the number of youth involved in the juvenile justice system by proactively concentrating on elementary education. Providing child-care services before and after school would allow parents to work longer in an effort to support their families while allowing their children to attend school. Making routes to school safer by means of police enforcement or volunteers would encourage attendance and learning in elementary school. Proactive measures such as these could reduce the numbers of youth involved in the juvenile justice system.


3 thoughts on “The Link Between Poverty, Truancy, and the Juvenile Justice System

  1. This was an interesting read! I would venture to add that there is an alarming yet far too common link between all of these factors you mentioned and race. In many cases if we explore the youth that are battling truancy and delinquency we will find that some of these issues have settled themselves in just about every generation of that youth's family. This is not a coincidence. We can establish any number programs to deal with the issue but there will not be any sustainable results until society values every human being equally and we all begin to change are negative attitudes and perceptions about race. The links are troubling and disheartening and the issues go beyond the courts. The day that everyone recognizes the gruesome history of this nation, in regards to race relations, and the impact it has had on poverty, mis-education, joblessness, and countless other areas, is the day that someone can say our society is actively working towards equality for everyone. Until then we have this link between poverty, truancy, juvenile delinquency, and race.

  2. Good point and a very compelling topic. I believe that this concern is especially important when considering the percentage of low income families in Baltimore City combined with the history of underfunding of Baltimore City Public Schools by the State of Maryland. In fact, it was partially the effort of the Baltimore Algebra Project(BAP) along with other Peer to Peer(P2P) mentor groups that halted the construction of yet another juvenile jail not too long ago. The beauty of the Peer to Peer model is that it empowers the very children that are negatively impacted by underfunding. Many of these students have realized that the system is flawed in many respects and take it upon themselves to speak up not only for their benefit, but for the benefit of those that come after them. These middle school and high school students display an ability to persevere and to overcome that others would not need to show until 10 or 15 years later in life.Many inner-cities have child populations with a higher rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD) than Iraq War Veterans. These children show their strength and courage on a daily basis. I just wish they did not have to.

  3. I absolutely agree with David's point about the correlation between literacy and incarceration. Imagine being in a high school classroom and being illiterate. I imagine this to be a humiliating experience that results in the student either a) detaching from school mentally (i.e. being the “class clown” so nobody notices your inability to comprehend the material) or b) detaching from the school physically by dropping out. And, of course, this plays into a student's self esteem. They are more likely to believe that they will not ever amount to anything significant, and consequently more likely to resort to drugs or other criminal activity. Creating an environment that reinforces students' self-esteem is critical in combatting these alarming statistics. Such an environment will encourage students to speak up if they are not understanding material, without fear of being called “stupid” or being laughed at or judged. Further, an environment where success is perceived positively is critical, as well. Some intelligent children may feel like they will also be ridiculed if they express interest in a subject or express high aspirations. Unfortunately, all of these factors contribute to these statistics of truancy, incarceration, and poverty.

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