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Juvenile Justice

Frequently Asked Questions

Who are young people with disabilities in the juvenile justice system?

These are young people with histories of school failure and involvement with law enforcement agencies. Many have disabilities that are not identified until they enter the juvenile justice system. The most common disabilities include learning disabilities, significant behavioral and emotional disabilities, Conduct Disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), developmental disabilities, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Chemical dependency or other substance abuse issues are often present along with a disability.

Why are so many young people with disabilities involved in juvenile corrections?

Youth with disabilities may account for as much as two-thirds or more of the total number of youth in the juvenile justice system, but they only account for 10-12% of the general population in public schools. There is a range of possible explanations for this over-representation. Youth with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities, emotional or behavioral disturbances, or developmental disabilities, tend to demonstrate less impulse control, greater susceptibility to peer pressure, and more significant challenges with appropriate social skills than their non-disabled peers (Garfinkel, 2001). It has also been suggested that communities bear some responsibility for the overrepresentation of youth with disabilities in juvenile justice. Often, young people with behavioral problems, ADHD, and other mental health concerns are not provided with the emotional and behavioral support they need in school and in the community. This is not to say that having a disability makes a young person likely to commit a crime, but rather that other factors should be taken into consideration.

What support may youth with disabilities need as they engage in the juvenile court process?

The court process can be confusing to people with and without disabilities. However, legal language, multiple hearings, having several different lawyers and advocates, and court paperwork can be particularly challenging for youth with disabilities and their families. To support young people through this process, there are a number of questions that adults should ask, of themselves and of the system (adapted from PACER Center, n.d.,

  • Does this youth understand the charges?
  • Did the youth receive special education services in his/her home school district? Does an IEP exist? Does it contain any information that might be helpful in the court process?
  • Is there a reason, particularly for youth who may be struggling but not have an identified disability, for further assessment and evaluation before continuing with the hearing or court process?
  • Does the family understand the judicial system? Does the family understand the young person’s disability?

Attorneys and advocates should clarify confusing language to ensure that young people understand the process through repetition, simplification, and explanation. Youth with disabilities often need extra time to process and answer questions, and attorneys, judges, and other officers of the court should provide this extra time. Lastly, questions and court documents should be made available in alternate formats to suit the learning needs of the individual young adult. These formats may include Braille, sign language, reading forms aloud, or presenting questions in written format (Garfinkel, 2001).

Are youth in the juvenile justice system entitled to special education services?

Youth with disabilities are entitled to the same special education services in the correctional system as in their home schools. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), juvenile justice facilities are required to provide free and appropriate education services, both general and special, to all students. Youth with disabilities who are incarcerated are entitled to an Individualized Education Program (IEP), and the school in the correctional facility is responsible for inviting parent participation in the IEP process. Parents also have the right to request that the correctional facilities arrange for their child to be evaluated for special education services. Young people are entitled to have representatives from their home school districts involved in all IEP or transition and discharge meetings, to help coordinate the correctional facility’s IEP with that of the home school. Finally, all transition-aged youth with disabilities are entitled to transition plans that are coordinated with the facility’s aftercare and discharge plan, both of which are included in the IEP and communicated to the home school upon release.

Do these same entitlements apply to students with disabilities in the adult correctional system?

A state may assign the responsibility for educating juveniles who are convicted as adults and serving time in adult prisons to any public agency deemed appropriate by the governor of that state. Services must be provided in accordance with the state standards and must include an appropriate elementary or secondary education curriculum.

While most correctional facilities offer standard educational and vocational programs, such services are often not consistent with federal and state requirements for youth who have disabilities (PACER Center, n.d.,

How can we keep young people with disabilities out of the correctional system?

Prevention of delinquent and criminal behavior is a difficult task, particularly when considering the additional struggles faced by youth with disabilities. Early intervention is the key to long-term delinquency prevention, and this intervention requires early assessment and evaluation. Very often, young people struggle for years with unidentified learning disabilities or emotional and behavioral disturbances before they ever become qualified for special education or other support services. In many cases, these services only become available after youth have been charged with or convicted of criminal behavior. Early assessment and identification of disabilities can go far in preventing this reality. On a school- and community-wide level, certain behavioral interventions may work well to prevent future criminal behavior. These include:

  • Evaluating the environment to determine where young people are most likely to experience problems;
  • Creating collaborative strategies to prevent problems identified by adults and youth together;
  • Viewing inappropriate social behaviors as “teachable moments” and responding with appropriate correction and re-teaching, rather than immediate disciplinary consequences
  • Establishing behavior support teams to monitor and assist in prevention strategies
  • For individual youth who do not respond to these large-scale prevention efforts, more targeted interventions may be necessary. These may include:
  • Creating wraparound teams to focus support from home, school, and other community contacts on developing intervention plans that encompass the young person’s whole life;
  • Making intervention decisions along a continuum, beginning with the least restrictive intervention most likely to result in the young person’s success;
  • Providing regular and honest feedback to the young person about his/her decisions and their consequences

Prevention is not an easy task and requires the full participation and collaboration of schools, families, religious communities, and other community resources and organizations.

(Adapted from the National Center on Education, Disability & Juvenile Justice [EDJJ] Web site:

What strategies can be used in the juvenile justice system to help youth with disabilities succeed?

Possibly the most important strategies for success in the juvenile justice system include ensuring that youth with disabilities have access to appropriate special education services during incarceration, and designing effective and appropriate transition plans for their re-entry into the community.

School programs inside correctional facilities should include a range of options for students, particularly those with disabilities, and these options should be written into youths’ IEPs. Correctional facilities should design education programs that include:

  • Comprehensive assessment and evaluation;
  • Vocational and independent living skills;
  • Classes resulting in Carnegie course units for students planning to complete high school;
  • GED planning, preparation, and testing;
  • Literacy skills for students with significant learning disabilities;
  • Behavioral and emotional support services

In developing appropriate IEPs during a youth’s placement in a correctional facility, it is extremely important to review all educational records from the student’s home school. Parents have a right to demand transfer of records from the home school district to the correctional facility. Without these records, it is difficult to create an effective IEP or successful transition plan for a young person’s re-integration into the community.

Before a young person is released from the correctional facility, a transition plan should be developed, including feedback from the student, family, correctional facility, and the home school district. Successful transition plans include wraparound services from the schools, the family, and existing community supports. It is important that the transition plan be integrated into the IEP from the correctional facility, so that it becomes a component of the new IEP at the student’s home school upon release. Effective transition plans strive to match a student’s academic and social needs with appropriate supports and consequences, while also including outcome-based standards for accountability. Team-based planning is an important component of effective transition or discharge planning.


The following sources were cited in this Frequently Asked Questions. For additional research and resources, see our links to other pages on this topic below.

Garfinkel, L. F. (2001). What parents need to know about children with disabilities and the delinquency system (DOC). Retrieved from

National Center on Education, Disability & Juvenile Justice. (n.d.). Resources on prevention of delinquency. Retrieved from

PACER Center. (n.d.) Background of the juvenile justice program. Retrieved from

PACER Center. (n.d.) Effects of disabilities in the justice system. Retrieved from

Other pages on this topic:

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This page was last updated on January 12, 2022.