“California Invests in Education for Incarcerated Youth”
Two students of color sitting in a classroom, teacher of color standing, writing on a chalkboard

California’s youth justice system is undergoing significant reforms, with a focus on improving educational opportunities for young people in lockups. The recently signed state budget allocates funds to higher education initiatives and enhances oversight of juvenile court schools within youth detention facilities. While the investment is modest due to budget constraints, it represents a crucial step forward for incarcerated youth.

The budget includes $80 million for alternative schools and $15 million for programs connecting incarcerated youth to higher education. This funding aims to improve the lives and futures of young people in the justice system. County probation departments are required to offer secondary education options within juvenile detention facilities, and county offices of education will receive additional funds to operate alternative and juvenile court schools. The goal is to ensure that these young individuals have access to comprehensive education that can be transferred to universities and count toward a bachelor’s degree.

“It’s quite frankly, nationally historic to have an investment of this type for this population that has been overlooked so tremendously,” said Katie Bliss, California higher education coordinator at the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center.

The new state budget also emphasizes the importance of assessment and planning for incarcerated youth. Education and probation officials are directed to assess the academic status of young people upon entering and leaving juvenile detention facilities, and to create continuing education plans for them after their release. By November 2025, an independent audit of outcomes for youth in juvenile court and alternative schools will be conducted. Additionally, a workgroup will be established to assess the quality of special education instruction for these students.

California has spent years restructuring its youth justice system, with the goal of shifting toward a more rehabilitative model. On June 30, the same day the budget bill was signed, state officials closed the last remaining state-run youth prisons

The historic closures are viewed by advocates and juvenile justice experts as long overdue. But they put more pressure on county facilities to provide adequate housing and education for young adults who have committed serious offenses or who struggle with mental and behavioral health issues. 

Many local facilities remain ill-equipped for the task. In May, state regulators forced Los Angeles County to shutter two detention centers, citing “unsuitable” conditions that included unsanitary living spaces, lack of programming, drug use and staffing shortages. An 18-year-old detained at one of the facilities died of a drug overdose that same month.

To address these challenges, the new state budget mandates that all county probation departments offer college courses in youth detention facilities, both in-person and online. The funding will be allocated to 45 community colleges, with an emphasis on general education courses that can be transferred to University of California or California State University campuses. Dual-enrollment programs will enable incarcerated students to earn high school and college credits simultaneously. The collaboration between colleges, probation agencies, and community-based schools aims to divert youth from future involvement in the justice system.

Programs will be modeled on Project Change, which operates out of the College of San Mateo. Courses offered to youth in detention will be transferable to any University of California or California State University campus, with an emphasis on general education courses that will count toward a bachelor’s degree. Dual-enrollment programs will allow incarcerated students to earn high school and college credits simultaneously.

‘We want to make sure that anything that’s been provided is highly comprehensive, and that it’s set up as a very clear pathway where it’s not just a random assortment of classes,’ said Bliss, who founded Project Change in 2015 after spending time in juvenile detention as a teen.

In parallel to expanding educational opportunities, the new state budget emphasizes the need for enhanced oversight. The California Department of Education is ordered to publicly post data from juvenile court schools on its website, ensuring transparency and accountability. Click here for more on this and to read the full article.