August 2002 // Volume 40 // Number 4 // Ideas at Work // 4IAW2

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

What Incarcerated Youth Say Would Help Them Succeed: Can Extension Play a Role?

As the number of incarcerated youth increases, there is a great need for a variety of programming approaches aimed at helping these youth succeed. The purpose of the study reported here was to assess incarcerated youths' opinions of effective programming approaches for both inside and outside the detention system. A sample of incarcerated youth (n=197) responded to a survey designed to assess perceptions of the overall facilities, staff, and future programming. Based on youth perceptions of what programs and activities they thought would help them succeed, there are several areas where Extension professionals can provide essential programming and collaborative support.

Eric Killian
Area Extension Specialist
Internet Address:

Randy Brown
Area Extension Specialist
Internet Address:

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Las Vegas, Nevada

William Evans
State Specialist
Human Development and Family Studies
University of Nevada
Reno, Nevada
Internet Address:


Studies continue to document an alarmingly high prevalence of juvenile delinquency in the U.S.. and the number of youth in detention has increased (Snyder & Sickmund, 1999). Prior studies have consistently found that youth involved in the juvenile justice system are more likely to suffer problems in adulthood, such as unemployment, alcoholism, and dependence on welfare (Kazdin, 1992).

Although there are some notable exceptions, Extension professionals have not traditionally been involved with youth in the juvenile justice system. Nevertheless, because of the Extension system's considerable resources, there is an increasing opportunity to provide educational programming that can help these youth succeed.

A variety of programming approaches aimed at helping juvenile offenders develop into useful, law-abiding citizens have been developed. Unfortunately, these programs remain largely ineffectual, and recidivism continues to be unacceptably high (Josi & Sechrest, 1999). Researchers have suggested programs that teach youth life skills may be a critical component in reducing recidivism. These findings dovetail with Extension programming aimed at promoting youth development by enhancing life skills and suggest that Extension professionals may be positioned to provide delinquent youth with the skills they need to succeed and avoid recidivism.

When developing programs for youth, the important step of asking participants what they think provides critical but often over-looked information. In particular, youth in the juvenile justice system are rarely asked what they think would be effective approaches to helping them succeed once they are released from detention or complete the term of their parole. The purpose of the study reported here was to assess youth opinions of effective programming approaches for both inside and outside the detention system.


The data for the study was obtained from surveys of incarcerated youth in two Nevada youth detention facilities in the Las Vegas area. The surveys were conducted in collaboration with the Clark County Division of Family & Youth Services (CCDFYS) to understand youth perceptions of their detention experience and to aid in the development of community reentry programming. Youth responded to a survey designed to assess perceptions of the overall facilities, staff, and future programming, as well as items related to anger management, decision-making, violence, abuse, and gang affiliation.

The self-report survey instrument used for this study was developed to provide information for new programming. The instrument also assessed several other psychosocial variables, which provided a profile of the county's incarcerated youth. The scales and items used were based on prior research and focus group discussions with CCDFYS administrators and incarcerated youth. The survey was then piloted with a group of youth detainees for comprehension and readability. This piloting resulted in several content and formatting modifications.

The programming options used in the survey instrument resulted directly from focus group discussions with incarcerated youth. Two focus group discussions prompted youth to generate strategies and programs that might help them or their peers be successful once they return to the community. These discussions resulted in a list of 10 inside-of-facility programming options and 8 outside-of-facility options (Tables 1 & 2). These lists comprised the items that were rated by survey respondents. The rating scale for each option was as follows: very helpful, helpful, kind of helpful, and not helpful.

The sample was composed of 197 male and female detainees. The ethnicity of the subjects was distributed as follows: 27% Hispanic-American, 15% African-American, 39% European-American, 7% Asian/Pacific Islander-American, and 13% Multi-Ethnic. Eighteen percent reported living with both biological parents before their incarceration, 38% with only their mothers, 10% with only their fathers, 21% in stepfamilies, and 13% with grandparents, foster parents, or in other living arrangements. Ninety percent had been incarcerated in the detention facilities for 6 months or less.


The findings from the survey reveal several strongly rated programming options. For example, job training both inside and outside of the detention facility was rated exceptionally high (Tables 1 & 2). Eighty-five percent of surveyed youth rated inside-facility job training as very helpful or helpful, and 92% rated outside facility job training as very helpful or helpful. In addition, computer training, arts and crafts, and recreation were also highly rated for inside-facility programming. For outside facility programming, 86% of youth rated having a safe place away from family to go when needed as either very helpful or helpful.

Table 1.
Incarcerated Youths' Rating of Inside-Facility Programming


Very Helpful


Kind of Helpful

Not Helpful

Personal time with staff inside the facility





Group counseling inside facility





Classroom instruction inside facility





Computer training inside facility





Job training inside facility





Recreational activities inside facility





Individual counseling inside facility





Art and crafts inside facility





Books reading materials inside facility





Counseling with parents inside facility





Table 2.
Incarcerated Youths' Rating of Outside-Facility Programming


Very Helpful


Kind of Helpful

Not Helpful

Job training inside facility





Conflict management classes outside facility





Drug/alcohol program outside facility





Mentoring by caring adults outside facility





Family counseling outside facility





Individual counseling outside facility





Social skills classes outside facility





Having a safe place from family outside facility





Discussion and Conclusions

Based on youth perceptions of what programs and activities they thought would help them succeed, there are several areas where Extension professionals can provide essential programming. Job training was rated highly by youth as an inside- or outside-facility program. Although Extension professionals offer classes in resume writing, interviewing skills, time management, etc., that could be very beneficial, many of these youth may even need more basic life skills preparation. For example, how to communicate with adults, how to dress for an interview, how to be on time, etc., might be areas in which Extension professionals could provide training.

Computer skills also were rated by youth as a programming area that would help them succeed. Many Extension systems are now providing technology training for both youth and adults. Present results suggest there is a need to extend this training to youth in or recently released from incarceration.

More generally, one of the most highly rated programming options for outside of the facility was having a safe place to go when needed. This finding suggests that youth need additional positive options outside of their family. Extension programs, which provide interactions with prosocial adults and peers, could be a safe place needed by recently released youth and could also help support youth on probation and parole to avoid further criminal activity.

Thus, programming with incarcerated youth, as well as community reentry programs and parole supervision, should focus more on the importance of the experiential component of the program cycle, which is the foundation and strength of Extension's youth development programs.

Although offering programs to incarcerated or recently released youth has a unique set of challenges, it is evident that there is tremendous opportunity to have Extension professionals increase their educational efforts with this audience. Youth in this study reported that they thought several programs might be helpful to them. The highly positive ratings of several options by the majority of youth in this study reflect their desire to participate in constructive programs.

In many juvenile justice systems, very few inside-facility or reentry programs are offered to youth. Not preparing these youth to succeed is an invitation to having them repeat the mistakes of their pasts. Extension professionals' expertise in program development, delivery, and evaluation can be a great asset to this often-over-looked "at risk" youth audience.

Even though all Extension offices may not be equipped to provide programming for this particular audience, Extension professionals may be able to offer collaborative support for juvenile justice system programs (e.g., helping juvenile justice staff understand youth development concepts, researching and locating appropriate curricula for their staff, or providing parent education and support to families). In addition, Extension professionals' experience with program development and evaluation models may strengthen existing or future programs targeting these youth. This support may provide the impetus to enhance youth programming with this audience.

Youth who are incarcerated have a greater likelihood to become incarcerated adults. Communities have a responsibility to try and help youth not travel this path. Thus, programming that will help them succeed is critically needed and, as these results reveal, even desired by youth themselves. Extension systems, with their vast array of resources and professional staff, have a great opportunity to help curb this trend and help this high-risk audience reach their fullest potential.

Note: Address correspondence to: Eric Killian, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, 2345 Red Rock Street, Las Vegas NV 89146. For permission to use the Youth Detention Inventory (YDI) and instructions on how to do so, contact Eric Killian or Randy Brown at the above address.


Kazdin, A.E. (1992). Child and adolescent dysfunction and paths toward maladjustment: Targets for intervention. Clinical Psychology Review, 12(8) pp. 795-817.

Josi, D.A., & Sechrest, D.K. (1999). A pragmatic approach to parole aftercare: Evaluation of a community reintegration program for high-risk youthful offenders. Justice Quarterly, 16(1) pp. 50-80.

Snyder, N., & Sickmund, M. (1999). Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Washington DC.