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Learning disabilities, crime, delinquency, and special education placement.

Crime statistics indicate that levels of academic achievement, school attendance and graduation rates play an important role in the involvement of youth in the criminal justice system. Research indicates that the level of education attained can affect opportunities for future employment. Although juveniles often fail to make this association, they do possess monetary ambitions (Farnworth & Lieber 1989, p. 265).

Research consistently illustrates that poor academic achievement is a major factor in crime and delinquency. Farnworth and Leiber (1989) noted that: ". . . the gap between economic goals and educational expectations was more effective in predicting the prevalence of serious utilitarian than serious nonutilitarian delinquency."

Definition of Learning Disability

Learning Disabled (LD) is the second largest category of special education (Ysseldyke, Algozzine, & Thurlow 1992). In Illinois, 5.19% of the special education students were LD (Ysseldyke, Algozzine, & Thurlow, 1992). Nationally LD students account for 43.6% of the special education categories served in the United States (Ysseldyke, Algozzine, & Thurlow, 1992).

The U.S. Office of Education (1977) has defined learning disabilities as follows:

. . . a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, mental retardation, or emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage." (U.S. Office of Education. p. 65083).

Before a student can be classified as LD and placed in appropriate special services s/he must meet one of five criteria:

(1) There must be an intrinsic neurological problem (i.e., faulty processing of information in the brain); (2) intraindividual differences must be present (i.e., the student must manifest problems in learning that are unique for that child only; (3) there must be a discrepancy between the student's potential (as illustrated by testing) and his, or her academic achievements; (4) the student must not exhibit any exclusionary factors (e.g., the learning problem must not be the result of mental retardation, sensory problems, limited command of English, cultural differences, and emotional illness); and (5) the student must exhibit developmental and/or academic problems (Winters 1993b, 1994).

If a student's learning difficulty can be explained by other factors not attributable to a developmental or academic problem, that student does not meet the criteria for special education (Winters 1994).

To be LD, students must have an IQ that is average or above, and show a discrepancy between their academic potential and their achievement (Winters 1993; Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford, 1986).

A learning disability is not equated with slow learning. True learning disabilities are not transient, and cannot always be remediated.

Public Law 94-142

In the United States, educationally handicapped children have a right to an education. This constitutional right is given through the statues of P. L. 94-142, which was enacted in 1975.

This law ensures all American children up to the age of 21 a free and appropriate education. It calls on school districts to conduct a systematic screening by qualified professionals to determine which children require special education. Children who are identified as possible candidates participate in a case study evaluation, after which, special education personnel will prepare an individual education plan (IEP). In general this law requires the school to address the child's problems - not the parent.

Even though this law guarantees all persons aged 3-21 a free and appropriate education, many fail to obtain adequate special educational services in school or later on in juvenile detention centers. As a result, although many learning disabilities can be remediated and some LD students may later go on to college or trade school, many in this population find themselves unemployed or in correctional centers during adolescence and later as adults (Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford, 1986).

Characteristics of Incarcerated Youth

Typical inmates of a correctional institution are school dropouts. They usually have maladaptive, passive learning styles, and attribute their lack of academic success to extraindividual factors. Bell (1990), Love (1991), Winters and Mathew (1993), and Novotny, Seifert, and Werner (1991) observed that "inmates, by virtue of both their backgrounds and the prison setting, tend not to see themselves as creatures of their own destinies but, rather, see the control of their lives in the hands of others."

The social characteristics of many inmates are quite diverse. Many are functionally illiterate and have never held a full- or part-time job. They are former juvenile delinquents who were drug and alcohol abusers (Pell, 1991). Often they have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse.

Other inmates are high school dropouts or mentally retarded. In 1988 the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicated that only 28% of prison inmates had completed high school. According to National Bureau of Justice statistics and state statistics, 60% of inmates dropped out of school before the 10th grade (Dowling, 1991; Karwath, 1991).

Between 28 and 43% of incarcerated juveniles have special education needs (Fink, 1991; Morgan, 1979; Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford, 1985). Many of them have learning disabilities. In adult correctional facilities between 30 and 50% of the inmates need special education (Fink, 1990; Dowling, 1991).

Around 15% of inmates in our correctional institutions are mildly and/or educable mentally handicapped/retarded. (Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford, 1986). In addition, many other inmates suffer specific learning disabilities due to cognitive and physical difficulties (Winters, 1991; Fink, 1990; Bell, 1990; Forbes, 1991; Dowling, 1991; Mathews & Winters, 1993; Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford, 1985).

Cost of Crime and Delinquency

Demographics of the delinquent population. The age of inmates in our prisons has decreased over the past decades. Today, the average male inmate is in his twenties. Although men in their twenties represent 24% of the general population, they account for more than 50% of the inmate population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics for 1988, 60% of prisoners are under 30 years of age.

Crime statistics from Chicago, Illinois testify to the increasing number of youth offenders. In 1989, the Chicago police reported that 64% of 274,000 their crimes were committed by individuals under the age of 25; 40% of these crimes were committed by teenagers under 18.

This shift in the age of the prison population has increased pressure for the development of curricula that would not only challenge this population academically but help them become more socially skilled.

Cost of Crime

Illiteracy is growing in the United States, and in prisons it is 25% (Acorn, 1991). This illiteracy among offenders is costing state and federal governments millions of dollars to house, feed, and clothe almost one million inmates. The average cost for incarcerating a youth in the United States is $29,600; in New York City the annual cost is $55,300. In Illinois out of a Department of Corrections budget of $533 million, $450 million was spent in 1991 to provide basic personal needs of prisoners. Additional millions of dollars are spent each year by insurance companies to pay for personal and corporate losses resulting from crime.


Researcher Percent

Hugo & Rutherford (1992) 24
Moran (1980) 42.1
Messinger (1987) 40
Coffey (1983) 40
Rutherford, Nelson & Woolford (1983) 28
Fejes-Mendozo & Rutherford (1987) 27
Cook & Hill (1990) 18

Over the next five years, 90% of adults presently incarcerated can expect to be released (Acorn, 1991). Due to illiteracy and the lack of a GED or high school diploma, many of these adults and youth will not be employable. In addition, Dunham and Albert (1987, p. 47) noted that around 60% of incarcerated youth who return to school end up dropping out later.

Merton (1957) asserts that education is the consensual method for attaining wealth. A knowledge of at least basic adult skills in reading and math are required for acquiring a good job or training for a profession. This gives priority to educating inmates so they can become self-sufficient taxpayers when they leave the criminal justice system. Although all offenders may not become successful as a result of receiving an education and many may return to criminal activity after their release from prison, education offers at least the potential for a positive outcome. Thus, it is in the public interest to educate inmates; it is cost effective because it public and decreases the amount of money spent in taking care of inmates.

The lack of an education often has a negative effect on school dropouts (Thornberry & Christian, 1985; Albert & Dunham, 1986). Dun-ham and Albert (1987, p. 47) note that lack of an education may lead either "to no employment, or to underemployment and entrapment in a level of marginal, low-paid and often part-time jobs."

Schooling and Delinquency

Academic success and youth self-esteem. School is important to the emotional development and self-esteem of children. Dunham and Albert (1987, p. 46) observed that "It is the school that dispenses the skills prized in contemporary society, provides the major arena in which the young can demonstrate competence, and functions as the major arena in which youth gain status."

Youths' success or lack of success in school may affect their subsequent involvement in juvenile delinquency. Failure in school is a result of poor school attendance for many students. This is especially true for LD students.

LD students usually experiences difficulty only in performing certain academic and developmental tasks and often experience few problems outside the school environment. The learning disabled can experience considerable pain and social stigma because they are often harassed and denigrated by peers who are not learning disabled. This negative environment can discourage many LD students from attending school, and it may also explain why most LD students fail (Cawley, Kahn, & Tedesco, 1989, p. 634).

LD students will experience little success both in and out of the regular classroom unless teachers help them develop a good self-concept - which is based on comparison with others.

The LD student is characterized as being frustration prone, manifesting a failure set, and self-devaluating.

In the regular classroom LD students, as a result of their academic limitations, are often placed in frustrating positions. This can lead them to expect failure in the classroom.

Thus, the school environment can be a factor in delinquent behavior. Figueire-McDonough (1986, p. 95) noted that "in an environment where academic success is defined as an exclusive goal, inept students will more acutely feel their lack of success and therefore search for alternative careers." Often this career may be in the area of criminal activity.

Since adolescents generally want to belong to a group, some LD students may feel left out at school. This lack of acceptance by academically skilled students may encourage LD youth to join street gangs. Leaders of such gangs accept these youth because they frequently want them to sell their drugs and engage in other illegal acts.

Cost of Dropping Out

There appears to be a causal relationship between dropping out of school and committing crime. Obviously, not all dropouts commit crimes, but when they lack the education to find gainful employment, they do so. Mathews and Winters (1993) noted that 45% of jail inmates had been unemployed, and 12% had been employed only part-time.

National Dropout Prevention Network (NDPN) reports that 25% of the nation's dropouts are unemployed. The NDPN also found that dropouts earn $250,000 less over their lifetime than do graduates. Further, they cost the nation $240 billion in crime, welfare, and health costs.

Dropout Rate and Delinquency

Across the United States, 82% of prison inmates are dropouts (Ysseldyke, Algozzine, & Thurlow 1992). In a study by the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority, it was discovered that 72% of Illinois prison inmates were dropouts, and that 30% read below the 6th-grade level. Moreover, more LD students are found among the adjudicated youth population than in the average school-age population (Murphy, 1986; Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford, 1985; Casey & Keilitz 1990).

Facility Sp. Ed. Pop. Academic %

Harrisburg 99 356 27.8
Joliet 198 213 92.9
Pere Marquette 0 0 0
St. Charles 143 228 62.7
Valley View 99 252 39.2
Warrenville 64 125 51.2

Total 603 1,174 51.3


Many scholars have recognized the close relationship between juvenile delinquency and learning disabilities (Broder, Dunivant, Smith, & Sullivan 1981; Keilitz & Dunivant, 1986). The general media have also noted the prevalence of handicapped juveniles in correctional institutions (Karwath, 1991; Beil, 1985; Bell, 1990); Prout, 1981). Estimates of the number of educationally handicapped incarcerated youth in educational programs as defined by P. L. 94-142 range from 18% (Cook & Hill, 1990) to 42% (Morgan, 1979).

Research on the relationship between learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency has produced mixed results (Kirk & Gallagher, 1989, p. 228). In a review of the literature, Messinger (1987) found that approximately 12% of the public school population were in special education programs, whereas in correctional institutions it ranged from 20 to 40%.

Moran (1979) surveyed 204 correctional institutions nationally, and found that 42% of the adjudicated youth in his study were special needs students, while Rutherford, Nelson, and wolford (1985) found a 28% incidence in male correctional institutions.

Learning disabilities also affect the rate of female juvenile delinquency. It would appear that like the males, they become involved in the juvenile criminal justice system early (Hugo & Rutherford, 1992. Rankin (1980) believes that the lack of academic success among adolescent girls may contribute to their delinquency.

Fejes-Mendoza and Rutherford (1987), in a survey of 30 female juvenile offenders, found that 27% had participated in special education services before their incarceration. In another study of 29 female offenders, Hugo and Rutherford (1992) found that 24% of the participants responding to a self-report survey were educationally handicapped.

The incidence of special needs students in juvenile centers has been found to be as high as 40%. This incidence of special needs students in juvenile corrections are especially significant, given the fact that only 5% of the general public school population is learning disabled. Yet a study of the special needs population in Illinois suggests that these figures may be low. In Illinois there are six juvenile centers in which special needs students in the educational programs ranged from 27.8% at the Harrisburg Detention Center, to 92.9% at Joliet Detention Center. And out of a total juvenile student population of 1,174, more than 50% were handicapped.

Clearly, the evidence that between 28 and 43% of inmates in our correctional centers are classified as learning disabled suggests a causal link. This view is supported by Dunivant (1982) in a study of 1,943 adolescent LD males.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, between 1985-1986, LD students left school more often than did other categories of children with disabilities. Ysseldyke, Algozzine, and Thurlow (1992, p. 287) noted that "The results clearly indicate that dropping out of school has detrimental effects on the employment attainment of students with mild disabilities (such as learning disabilities)."


Cognitive: Average IQ Average IQ
Memory Problems Oral Learning

Achievement: Below Ave. Below Average
Math & Reading Math & Reading
Problems Problems

Social: Hyperactivity Hyperactivity
Short Attention Short Attention
Span Span
Interpersonal problems Low Social
Insecure in Social Insecure In Social
Settings Settings

Source: Ysseldyke, J. E., Algozzine, B. Thurlow M. L. (1992)
Critical issues in special education Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Company; and Getz, O., Brands, B. (1978). Bridging the gaps:
Education for success, Chicago: Cook County Department of
Corrections. Vol. II.

There is a close relationship between dropping out of school and the number of prisoners in our state prisons. In states with high graduation rates, the prison rate is much lower than in states with low graduation rates.

The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) reported that the dropout problems in Illinois has affected the rate of incarceration in that state. The ICJIA reported that as the graduation rate fell from 82.6 to 78% percent between 1987 and 1989, the rate of incarceration increased from 172 to 194 inmates per 100,000 in Illinois (Karwath, 1991). This was in sharp contrast with Minnesota, which had a graduation rate of 90.6% in 1987, and an incarceration rate of 60 inmates per 100,000 (Hodgkinson, 1989, p. 15).

The Learning Disabled Offender

Incidence of LD among offenders. Research indicates that learning disabilities handicap many incarcerated youth (Permutter, 1987). Although no causal relationship has been found between LD and delinquency, researchers have found a link between LD and adjudicated adolescents (Permutter, 1987).

The incidence of learning disabilities among the general population based on U.S. Dept. of Education and local service providers is around 5%. This is in sharp contrast with the number of LD students in the criminal justice system, estimated to be as high as 50% (Bell, 1990, p. 23).

Evaluation and placement of LD offenders. Coffey (1983) and Lewis, Schwartz, and Ianacone (1988) suggest that the best way to serve the special needs population is through coordination of services between public school special education programs and correctional education programs.

It has been found that large numbers of incarcerated youth who return to school drop out (Dunham & Albert, 1987). Sametz Hamparian (1986) noted that 60% of offenders who return to public school drop out later.

This high dropout rate may be the result of the failure of many handicapped adjudicated youth to be evaluated and receive special service during their incarceration. This view is supported by the large number of handicapped youth in prison who were receiving special education services before they were incarcerated. Moran (1991) found that 26% of those in detention who came from local schools were in need of special services.

Research indicates that most incarcerated LD youth receive inadequate services while they are involved in the juvenile justice system (Cook & Hill, 1990; Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford 1986). LD offenders suffer both from the lack of service delivery and inadequate placement. Cook and Hill (1990, p. 196) found that 55% of the students requiring LD services in juvenile detention centers were not receiving the proper educational services at the time of adjudication. These researchers also found that both regular and special educators fail to identify LD students (Hill & Cook, 1990, p. 197).

Some educationally handicapped incarcerated youth often fail to receive adequate special education services due to: (1) the absence of special education "child finds" in correctional centers; (2) the failure of many regular educators in correctional centers to refer students for multidisciplinary conferences/staffings; (3) misdiagnosis; and (4) the absence of qualified special educators or psychologists to conduct the necessary screening for special education placement. Yet, the salient problem affecting the placement of juveniles in special education programs is the failure of schools to transfer offender records to correctional institutions (Hugo & Rutherford, 1992; Edgar, Webb, & Maddox, 1987; Rutherford, Nelson, & Wolford, 1985). Hugo and Rutherford (1992, p. 126) noted that "incomplete, inadequate, and delayed transfer of school records from the public schools to the correctional facility is a continuing problem in the juvenile justice system."


A correlation among graduation, dropout rate, and the incarceration of youth has been found. LD students may be at risk for future incarceration if their disability is not remediated or at least lessened in severity so that they can become self-sufficient and participate fully in all economic and social opportunities that are available to the nonhandicapped.

Research indicates that in both public schools and correctional centers, special needs youth often are not evaluated and thus lack special education services (Cook & Hill, 1990). Thus it is imperative that "child find" procedures be instituted and carried out to identify students who may be at risk.


Acorn, L. R. (1991). National Symposium on Partnerships features offender literacy and training programs. Corrections Today, Feb., 72-75.

Beil, L. (1985, July 5). Learning disability may be the cause of delinquency. Shreveport Journal, 3A.

Bell, R. (1990). Tried-and-true educational methods aren't true to the special needs of prison inmates. Chicago Tribune, November 28, p. 23.

Casey, P., & Kelitz, I. (1990). Estimating the prevalence of mentally disabled and handicapped juvenile offenders. In P. Leone (Ed.), Understanding troubled and troubling youth: Multiple perspectives. Newberry, CA: Sage.

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Date:Jun 22, 1997
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