The Role of Juvenile Special Education in the Criminal Justice Field

criminal justice fieldWhether you are already in the process of earning an advanced degree or you are simply interested in learning more about how the field of special education intersects with the criminal justice field, it may be helpful to know that there is an ongoing need for special education professionals in the criminal justice system. Sometimes these are professionals who hold a masters in criminal justice.

The educational background of those in this field may vary; some people have a masters in special education degree, while others have a dual degree. Regardless, the demand is high and these individuals can make a real difference to children and youth who are at high risk of continuing criminal activity into their adult years. Because many children and youth who are not diagnosed or poorly diagnosed, or properly diagnosed but improperly treated, may develop behaviors that lead to criminal activity, the urgency of the need for preventative, diagnostic and rehabilitative special education measures is ongoing. Learn what the role of juvenile special education is currently in the field of criminal justice and then decide if this may be a career choice for you.

Where Special Education Fits In

Current estimates state that approximately 70 percent of children who are in the criminal justice system have some sort of educational or emotional disturbance. Because most children who have disturbances or special needs do not get diagnosed and properly placed in appropriate education tracks, an increase in drop-out rates, criminal activity, teen pregnancy, drug use, violence and other issues are often seen to correlate with the need for special education. When a child is not adequately served in the educational system or at home, criminal behavior can occur. Then, it becomes the criminal justice system’s role to provide education while the young person is incarcerated.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, specifies that children and youth who are incarcerated are still entitled to the services they need, including classes with a special education focus and other services. There are many challenges associated with providing special education in a correctional facility environment, however. One challenge is dealing with an ever-changing landscape of faces, as youth are moved in and out of the criminal justice system. Another challenge is providing tailored services to a diverse population, which often has vastly differing needs. Yet another challenge is properly diagnosing each individual child or teen while they are under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system.
Because there is a statute that mandates that every incarcerated young person deserves a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), there is always a need for juvenile special education professionals to bring their considerable expertise and knowledge to help solve these often complex and ongoing problems as they relate to this special needs population. Additionally, since there are nearly equal numbers of young people who have emotional disturbances along with special needs, and such these two categories often overlap, there is a great need for professionals who can create innovative approaches to special education to reach each young person where they are.