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After Jail, Youth With Disabilities Need Special Support to Stay Out

When young people with disabilities end up in the juvenile justice system, they're less likely to return to youth prisons after their sentence is up if they have jobs or go to school quickly after being released, a new paper says.

However, comprehensive programs that help these youth go from prison to the outside world are scarce, says this piece from Project Forum at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. And juveniles with disabilities have a high recidivism rate—more than the 55 percent rate for youth without disabilities.

The report looks closely at the practices in four states—Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, and Oregon—when it comes to supporting all juveniles, including those with disabilities, who are leaving the justice system.

Some common practices the report found in states with programs intended to reduce recidivism for these young people include: a continuum of supports for youth that begins in prison and keeps going once they leave; transition facilitators or coordinators who are dedicated to working with these youth; and programs for reentering society that are comprehensive, addressing education, employment, social and behavioral skills, mental health, substance-abuse issues, housing, and transportation. Another common theme in the report? Budget problems often keep these programs from going long-term.

Here are some details of individual state's programs:

•Before youths' release, Arizona's Department of Juvenile Corrections assigns them a transition coordinator who establishes a relationship and supports them after they leave. Four of these coordinators travel the state and work with parole officers, the state director of special education, and school districts to ensure these juveniles are enrolled in the right programs at the end of their sentences. These coordinators even go to students' IEP meetings.
•Georgia's "Think Exit at Entry" program provides educational planning, progress reviews, transition facilitators, and other supports to youth in the juvenile justice system, including those with disabilities. The program has been scaled back since a federal grant expired in 2007, although some parts of it have kept going because of the partnerships already established among state agencies.
•Hawaii's Olomana School serves students in the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, and youth participate in regular meetings about their behavior and school work. Because the state runs all schools in Hawaii, transferring records back to schools when students are released is seamless—and transfer of records is critical to a successful reentry for students with disabilities, the report says.
•Oregon's Project STAY OUT—Strategies Teaching Adolescent Young Offenders to Use Transition Skills—is specifically for youth with an IEP, 504 plan, or mental health diagnosis. Youth work on self-determination skills, social skills, finding work, and other goals. One study found that 66 percent of STAY OUT participants were either employed or in school during the first six months after their release from juvenile justice programs, the very things that are likely to keep them from returning.

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