The fundamental philosophical issue in correctional policy is whether the focus of incarceration should be on punishment or rehabilitation. Where youthful offenders are concerned, most societies officially elect rehabilitation, but professing such a commitment and successfully implementing it in a correctional environment are two different things.
Education is a particularly difficult mission to pursue within the juvenile justice system. Many youthful offenders have learning disabilities or deep aversions to formal education, and disciplinary problems are rampant. The average ward in California's juvenile justice system is 17.5 years old, but tests at only a 7th-grade level at intake. While the majority of students are served in conventional classroom settings, some are considered too dangerous to themselves and others to leave individual cells for education, so school lessons are conducted through narrow food tray openings in metal doors.
These problems are especially troubling because education has been proven to play a hugely positive role in reducing future criminal activity among offenders, as well as better preparing them to reintegrate into mainstream American society. For too many years, youth and administrators in California did not regard correctional educators as "real teachers," and standard high school curricula were often "dumbed down" for juvenile justice use.
In June 1996, the California Youth Authority, one of the largest youth correctional agencies in the United States, created a statewide correctional school district known as the California Education Authority (CEA), and adopted for it the same curriculum and standards for graduation as every other public school district in the state. The CEA now manages a district that spans the entire state and contains nearly 8000 students, all of them convicted youthful offenders.
The High School Graduation Plan (HSGP), also known as "No Diploma, No Parole," (though technically wards cannot be kept past their court-determined maximum release date) ensures the maximum number of students get their high school diploma or equivalent certification, without compromising standards. Making educational progress part of determining parole readiness has helped to shift the focus of youth incarceration back to learning and reform.
Knowing that their shot at freedom depends on taking school seriously has already started to impact youth outcomes for the better. Wards appear more enthusiastic about education, and the "No Diploma" parole strategy has removed any negative stigma associated with trying to better oneself. The number of diplomas issued has increased to 679 in 1998, even as the total student population of the CEA has diminished over the past few years.
Focused efforts toward school accreditation has further emphasized the seriousness of the CYA's educational reform efforts; as of 1998, three CEA schools were accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), and the rest of the system was well on its way.