Children With Disabilities: Summary of Research on Their Prevalence in Juvenile Delinquent/Corrections Populations


1. Robinson, T.R., Rapport, Jane K. Providing Special Education in the Juvenile Justice System. Remedial and Special Education 20 (1), 19-26. (1999).

A. Purpose: This article discusses the pertinent issues in providing special education services in the juvenile justice system. It addresses the prevalence rates, problems with correctional facility personnel, recent developments, and recommendations for facilitating special education programming in correctional institutions.

B. Findings: “Congress has made it clear that the responsibility for educating youth with disabilities does not terminate upon incarceration.” Although state agencies are mandated to provide appropriate educational services to youth with disabilities who are incarcerated, evidence suggests that many receive substandard programs. “Numerous data sources indicate that the prevalence of juveniles with disabilities in correctional facilities far exceeds the prevalence noted in the general population.” The most commonly occurring disabilities within correctional facilities are learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, and mental retardation. Although no conclusive evidence supports any single theory regarding why delinquency occurs, social deficits seem to be a superceding factor. The courts have held that correctional facilities must provide juveniles with appropriate educational services in an expedient manner. Also, the Department of Justice is required to make a good faith effort to identify and serve youth with disabilities. Despite the legal mandates, few programs have been developed to serve the educational needs of incarcerated juveniles with disabilities. On an already overburdened juvenile justice system, responsibility for administration and cost of special education services is a controversial issue because numerous agencies are often involved in providing services. The right to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment does not entitle students with special needs to avoid the legal consequences of their actions. For safety reasons, the least restrictive environment for inmates has to be somewhat restrictive.

C. Conclusion: The fact that all children and youth, including incarcerated juveniles, with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education has been affirmed by a number of courts located throughout the nation. The problem is that incarcerated youth with disabilities are frequently not receiving the services for which they qualify according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

2. Leone, Peter E., Ph.D., et. al. Understanding the Over Representation of Youths With Disabilities in Juvenile Detention. 3 D.C. L. Rev. 389. (1995).

A. Purpose: Youths with disabling conditions are grossly over represented among those detained and confined in juvenile correction systems. The authors note that while only 7% of all public school students in the United States have been identified as having disabilities such as mental retardation, emotional disturbance, and learning disabilities, in the juvenile justice systems the prevalence rate is estimated to be between 12% to 70%. Some jurists, court personnel, and counsel representing youths charged with delinquency may not have a good understanding of the behaviors associated with disabling conditions. Therefore, such behaviors may be misinterpreted by officials in the juvenile justice system and contribute unnecessary detention. This article examines the detention of youths with disabilities in juvenile corrections, and tries to discover what, if anything, professionals can do to provide equitable treatment to youths with disabilities.

B. Findings: The authors examined the characteristics of some juveniles with disabilities that may make them more susceptible to detention prior to adjudication. Such characteristics include communication problems and poor comprehension. They noted that across the disability categories such characteristics cause the children with disabilities to appear “uncooperative,” “disrespectful,” “angry,” and “irritable,” and act to increase the likelihood that these youths will have negative encounters with the juvenile justice system.

C. Conclusion: Professionals in the juvenile justice system must be aware of the characteristics attributed to the different disability categories, and must be able to discriminate between behaviors stemming from disabilities that pose little or no threat and those that are true indicators of dangerousness. In addition to learning to identify children with disabilities, juvenile justice professionals must also learn how to provide appropriate special services. Given the disproportionate numbers of youths with disabilities entering the juvenile justice system, the authors suggest that “basic information and skills should become a mandatory part of training for juvenile justice professionals.”

3. Brier, Norman. The Relationship Between Learning Disability and Delinquency: A Review and Reappraisal. Journal of Learning Disabilities 22 (9), 546-553. (1989).

A. Purpose: This article reviews research on the prevalence of learning disabilities among delinquent populations. The author describes and evaluates three hypotheses explaining the “link” between learning disability and delinquency. The author also covers the general risk factors for the onset of delinquency.

B. Findings: “Individuals with learning disabilities have been noted to comprise a disproportionately large segment of juvenile delinquent populations.” The prevalence rates have varied widely, ranging from 12% or less to 70% or more. Three hypotheses have been proposed to explain why individuals with learning disabilities are more likely to become delinquent than non-learning-disabled individuals. All three explanations view a learning disability as the single or primary cause of delinquency. The susceptibility hypotheses proposes that the neurological and intellectual difficulties of learning disabled individuals directly contribute to antisocial behavior. The school failure hypotheses proposes that the school failure typically experienced by learning disabled individuals is a first step in a sequence that culminates in delinquency. The differential treatment hypotheses raises three questions:

1. Are individuals who are learning disabled more likely to be picked up by the police than non-learning disabled individuals for comparable levels of delinquent activity?

2. Are individuals with learning disabilities who are charged with a violation at greater risk of adjudication than non-learning disabled individuals?

3. Are individuals who are learning disabled more likely to receive a severe disposition from juvenile court than non-learning-disabled youngsters?
The data clearly exhibited that individuals with learning disabilities are treated differently by the judicial system. There are three factors thought to predispose youngsters towards delinquency; Low IQ; psychopathology in the parent; and difficulties in parent management.

C. Conclusion: The presence of a learning disability does seem to place a youngster at an increased risk of a delinquent outcome. Three hypotheses have been proposed to explain why individuals with learning disabilities are more likely to become delinquent. Research is still needed to test these proposed relationships. With such knowledge, youngsters who are at a high risk can be identified early and provided with preventative intervention. Also targeted treatments can be established for those individuals with learning disabilities who are already delinquent.

4. Grande, Carolyn G. Delinquency: The Learning Disabled Student’s Reaction to Academic School Failure? Adolescence 23 (89), 209-219. (1988).

A. Purpose: This article reviews research regarding delinquency as the learning disabled student’s reaction to academic school failure. The author also defines a target population for experimental research in this area.

B. Findings: The author examined studies concluding that there is a correlation between disruptive or delinquent behavior and academic achievement. Research regarding the failure-delinquency relationship focuses on factors such as socioecomonic status, sex, and age. Dropout rate has also been related to unsuccessful school experiences. The author examined studies for defining a target population for experimental research regarding delinquency as the learning disabled student’s reaction to academic school failure. One study investigated the relationship between successful (70% and above) and failing (below 70%) daily grade notifications and school disciplinary offenses of six 9th-grade learning disabled males. It was determined that a moderate negative correlation existed between success and school disciplinary offenses for the students. A comparative analysis of male and female delinquency revealed that males tend to commit offenses at a higher frequency than females. Statistics consistently demonstrate that male adolescents, overall, tend to commit a majority of crimes. There was no direct correlation assessed concerning socioecomonic status and delinquency.

C. Conclusion: Research results lead to the conclusion that a link between learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency is established. Learning disabled male adolescents are targeted as likely candidates for delinquent involvement and are, therefore, described as the target population for experimental research. Whether delinquency is the learning disabled student’s reaction to failure remains to be demonstrated.

5. Larson, Katherine, A. A Research Review and Alternative Hypothesis Explaining the Link Between Learning Disability and Delinquency. Journal of Learning Disabilities 21 (6), 357-363. (1988).

A. Purpose:

1. This article reviews and evaluates current hypotheses that attempt to explain the link between learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency. The author notes that the high prevalence rate of children with disabilities in the juvenile delinquent population indicates the need to synthesize historical and current data and evaluate empirical support of existing causal hypothesis. Estimates of prevalence of learning disability among delinquents range from 26% to 73%. Children with learning disabilities are adjudicated at about twice the rate as non-learning youth, and LD youth have greater recidivism and parole failure.

2. The article examines three main hypotheses; 1) The School Failure Hypothesis, which postulates that learning disability leads to school failure, which leads to a negative self-image, which in turn results in school dropout and delinquency; 2) The Differential Treatment Hypothesis, which proposes that children with learning disabilities and non disabled peers engage in the same rate and kind of delinquent behaviors; however, police, social workers, and other officials treat children with LD differently so as to increase incidence of arrest and/or adjudication; and 3) The Susceptibility Hypothesis, which contends that learning disabilities are frequently accompanied by “a variety of socially troublesome personality characteristics.” The author also suggests a different approach called the Alternative Hypothesis.

B. Findings: First, the author examined each of the three theories and rejected all of them, stating that the research has not indicated a connection between any of the theories and the LD/juvenile delinquent link. She noted that both the school failure and differential treatment hypotheses are not supported by empirical evidence. The susceptibility hypothesis lacks empirical testing, and the concept of susceptibility appears to be too global to be systematically testable. Finally, the author suggests that an alternative theory may be able explain the link. This approach postulates that ineffective social cognitive problem-solving skills increase risk for delinquency in learning disabled youth.

C. Conclusion: The author notes that more research, specifically that which tests relationships within the hypothesis, is needed to further validate the alternative approach. Because delinquency is of such serious concern to contemporary society, this type of research is of vast importance.

6. Murphy, Donna M. The Prevalence of Handicapping Conditions Among Juvenile Delinquents. Remedial and Special Education 7 (3), 7-17. (1986).

A. Purpose: This article reviews and summarizes the literature regarding the prevalence of disability conditions among juvenile delinquents, because such information is scattered throughout various educational and correctional journals, and institutional and governmental reports. The author notes that interest in this area began with the implementation of Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975, but has recently intensified following national surveys revealing that an extraordinary number of delinquents have disabilities.

B. Findings: The overall prevalence rates of children with disabilities in the juvenile delinquent population, based both upon large-scale official estimates of disabilities among delinquents and upon direct examination of the records of selected samples of delinquents, range from nearly 30% to more than 60%. In contrast, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), found that only 10.76% of children in the general population have disabilities. The research also indicated that the prevalence of some disabilities among juvenile delinquents, particularly emotional disturbance, learning disabilities, and mental retardation, are extremely disproportionate to the prevalence estimates of non-disabled youths. The author pointed out that the instability among prevalence rates may be attributed to a number of factors, including inconsistency between official definitions, no uniform criteria for identifying disabilities, and differences in terminology between the states.

C. Conclusion: Although the research in this area has yielded inconsistent results, the studies do indicate that a disproportionate percentage of young offenders have disabilities, and the prevalence of certain disabilities may be much greater among this population than among the general population of children and youth. The author noted that all of the research, taken together, constitute an “urgent call for a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to the systematic identification of young offenders with disabilities, consistent provision of appropriate special education services by qualified personnel, and regular monitoring of responsible agencies for compliance with state and federal laws.”

7. Keilitz, Ingo & Dunivant, Noel. The Relationship Between Learning Disability and Juvenile Delinquency: Current State of Knowledge. Remedial and Special Education 7 (3), 18-26. (1986).

A. Purpose: The background, research, and results of a multi year project, the Learning Disability-Juvenile Delinquency Project (LD-JD Project) were examined in this article. The LD-JD project, initiated in 1976, was designed to research whether a link existed between learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency, and, if so, what the nature of this link was. The researchers also wanted to examine five theories/hypotheses that had recently been advanced to explain the relationship between learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency.

B. Procedures: The research of the LD/JD study consisted of three studies. The two main studies were an age cross-sectional study and a longitudinal study. These were conducted in an effort to determine whether LD is related to delinquency and, if so, to determine the nature of that relationship. The age cross-sectional study was based on a sample containing a cross-section of age groups, measured at a single point in time. The sample was composed of 973 teenage boys from the public schools of Baltimore, Indianapolis, and Phoenix, who had no prior record of official delinquency, and 970 boys from the juvenile courts and youth correctional facilities in the same three cities. The longitudinal study was an investigation of 351 boys from the cross-sectional sample who had no history of official delinquency.

C. Analysis of Results: Both studies indicate that adolescents with learning disabilities had significantly higher rates of general delinquent behavior and they engaged in more violence, substance abuse, and school disruption than non-learning disabled adolescents. Additionally, the likelihood of arrest and adjudication was substantially higher for adolescents with learning disabilities. The research indicated that children with learning disabilities make up a significant percentage of those who have been officially adjudicated, with most estimates falling in the 30-50% range. The studies also confirmed the existence of three of the five theories/hypotheses that attempted to explain the link between LD and juvenile delinquency. These theories were the school failure theory, the susceptibility theory, and the differential treatment theory.

D. Conclusion: The results of the JD/LD Project have established that a link between learning disabilities and delinquency exists. The authors noted that adolescents with learning disabilities are at a relatively high risk for delinquency. This implies that juvenile justice, human services, and educational agencies should target special prevention and rehabilitation programs for this population.

8. Winter, Bill. Learning Disability: The Young Offenders Curse. 63 Apr. ABA J. 427. (1983).

A. Purpose: This article, printed in the American Bar Association Journal, briefly described the findings reported at a recent, mid-year ABA meeting. The topic of discussion at this meeting was the issue of children with disabilities and juvenile delinquency.

B. Findings: According to the chief of psycho-educational services at the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Clinic, at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City, it is estimated that 75% of all juvenile delinquents have learning disabilities. This expert also noted that the symptoms of learning disabilities include impulsiveness, lack of control, lack of reflection, hyperactivity, poor attention, and the inability to acquire proficiency in basic learning skills. This expert also noted that 80% of all children with learning disabilities are boys. Other experts present at this meeting placed the responsibility for children with learning disabilities in juvenile courts, on the juvenile court judges. It was alleged that many juvenile justice systems are guilty of “criminal” neglect in ignoring this problem and actually are at odds with school systems over what to do.

C. Conclusion: Finally, it was suggested that courts need to be aware of the administrative processes that can be used to obtain services for a child with a learning disability. Under Federal Law a “free and appropriate education” can be ordered for LD children. A judge can be the first person to initiate the process by identifying a child as LD and requesting an evaluation.

9. Morgan, David I. Prevalence and Types of Handicapping Conditions Found in Juvenile Correctional Institutions: A National Survey. The Journal of Special Education, 13 (3), 283-295. (1979).

A. Purpose: This article summarizes the findings of a comprehensive national survey of all juvenile offenders with disabilities committed to state correctional facilities throughout the United States. The stated purpose for this survey was to collect “information useful to educators, correctional administrators, and legislators alike in their efforts on behalf of incarcerated children, both from the standpoint of possible preventative interventions in elementary and secondary educational systems.”

B. Survey Procedures: Questionnaires were sent to state juvenile correctional administrators in 50 states and 6 U.S. territories. The total number of responding institutions was 204, representing every state and all but one of the territories. The main part of the survey requested the total number of children in each disability category at the facility. The categories of disabilities were derived directly from P.L. 94-142, the controlling federal law at the time the survey was conducted. Additional statistical information derived from the survey included educational participation, teacher-pupil ratios, and fiscal expenditures.

C. Analysis of Results: The survey revealed an excessive number of juveniles with disabilities in the correctional institutions. 42.4% of delinquent children committed to correctional facilities were found to have some type of disability. In the general population, however, the incidence of children with disabilities is only 12.3%. The disability categories with the highest incidence rates were emotional disturbance (16.23%), learning disabilities (10.59%), and educable mental retardation (7.69%).

D. Conclusion: After listing the statistical information by state, and conducting a brief literature review of previous research in this area, the author emphasized the need for further research on the reasons behind the high prevalence of children with disabilities in the juvenile corrections population. He cautioned against a strict reliance on the statistics collected, noting that there could be many explanations for why such an extremely high prevalence rate was reported, including administrative policies and broad interpretations of category definitions. 
(Emphasis added in text where appropriate.)