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On any given day, nearly 53,000 youth are held in facilities away from home as a result of juvenile or criminal justice involvement. Nearly one in ten is held in an adult jail or prison. Even for the youth held in juvenile “residential placement,”1 the situation is grim; most of them are in similarly restrictive, correctional-style facilities. Thousands of youths are held before they’ve been found delinquent,2 many for non-violent, low-level offenses — even for behaviors that aren’t criminal violations.
This report provides an introductory snapshot of what happens when justice-involved youth are held by the state: where they are held, under what conditions, and for what offenses. It offers a starting point for people new to the issue to consider the ways that the problems of the criminal justice system are mirrored in the juvenile system: racial disparities, punitive conditions, pretrial detention, and overcriminalization. While acknowledging the philosophical, cultural, and procedural differences between the adult and juvenile justice systems,3 the report highlights these issues as areas ripe for reform for youth as well as adults.
Generally speaking, state juvenile justice systems handle cases involving defendants under the age of 18.4 (This is not a hard-and-fast rule, however; every state makes exceptions for younger people to be prosecuted as adults in some situations or for certain offenses.5) Of the 48,000 youths in juvenile facilities, more than two-thirds (69%) are 16 or older. Troublingly, more than 500 confined children are no more than 12 years old.6
Black and American Indian youth are overrepresented in juvenile facilities, while white youth are underrepresented. These racial disparities7 are particularly pronounced when it comes to Black boys and American Indian girls. While just 14% of all youth under 18 in the U.S. are Black, 43% of boys and 34% of girls in juvenile facilities are Black. And even excluding youth held in Indian country facilities, American Indians make up 3% of girls and 1.5% of boys in juvenile facilities, despite comprising less than 1% of all youth nationally.8
Justice-involved youth are held in a number of different types of facilities. (See “types of facilities” sidebar). Some facilities look a lot like prisons, some are prisons, and others offer youths more freedom and services. For many youths, “residential placement” in juvenile facilities is virtually indistinguishable from incarceration.
Most youth in juvenile facilities12 experience distinctly carceral conditions, in facilities that are:
Two out of every three confined youths are held in the most restrictive facilities — in the juvenile justice system’s versions of jails and prisons, or in actual adult jails and prisons. 4,656 confined youths — nearly 1 in 10 — are incarcerated in adult jails and prisons,14 where they face greater safety risks and fewer age-appropriate services are available to them.15 At least another 30,714 are held in the three types of juvenile facilities that are best described as correctional facilities: (1) detention centers, (2) long-term secure facilities, and (3) reception/diagnostic centers.16 99.7% of all youth in these three types of correctional facilities are “restricted by locked doors, gates, or fences”17 rather than staff-secured, and 60% are in large facilities designed for more than 50 youths.
The largest share of confined youth are held in detention centers. These are the functional equivalents of jails in the adult criminal justice system. Like jails, they are typically operated by local authorities, and are used for the temporary restrictive custody of defendants awaiting a hearing or disposition (sentence). Over 60% of youth in detention centers fall into those two categories.18
But how many of the 18,000 children and adolescents in juvenile detention centers should really be there? According to government guidance, “…the purpose of juvenile detention is to confine only those youth who are serious, violent, or chronic offenders… pending legal action. Based on these criteria, [it] is not considered appropriate for status offenders and youth that commit technical violations of probation.” Yet over 5,000 youths are held in detention centers for these same low-level offenses. And nearly 2,000 more have been sentenced to serve time there for other offenses, even though detention centers offer fewer programs and services than long-term facilities. In fact, “National leaders in juvenile justice… support the prohibition of juvenile detention as a dispositional option.”
The most common placement for committed (sentenced) youth is in long-term secure facilities, where the conditions of confinement invite comparisons to prisons. Often called “training schools,” these are typically the largest and oldest facilities, sometimes holding hundreds of youths behind razor wire fences, where they may be subjected to pepper spray, mechanical restraints, and solitary confinement.19
Finally, reception/diagnostic centers - often located adjacent to long-term facilities - evaluate youth committed by the courts and assign them to correctional facilities. Like detention centers, these are meant to be transitional placements, yet over half of the youths they hold are there longer than 90 days. 1 in 8 youths in these “temporary” facilities is there for over a year.
Outside of these correctional-style facilities, another 17,000 youths are in more “residential” style facilities that are typically less restrictive, but vary tremendously, ranging from secure, military-style boot camps to group homes where youth may leave to attend school or go to work. Most of these youths (70%) are still in locked facilities rather than staff-secured, and conditions in some of these facilities are reportedly worse than prisons. About three-quarters of youth in these more “residential” facilities are in residential treatment facilities and group homes. Less frequently, youth are held in ranch or wilderness camps, shelters, or boot camps.
To be sure, many justice-involved youth are found guilty of serious offenses and could conceivably pose a risk in the community. But a disturbing number of youth held in juvenile facilities are not even serving a sentence.
More than 9,000 youths in juvenile facilities — or 1 in 5 — haven’t even been found guilty or delinquent, and are locked up awaiting trial (that is, a hearing). Another 6,500 are detained awaiting disposition (sentencing) or placement. Most detained youths are held in detention centers, but nearly 900 youths are locked in long-term secure facilities — essentially prisons — without even having been committed. Of those, only a third are accused of violent offenses.20
Even if pretrial detention might be justified in some serious cases, over 4,000 youths are detained for technical violations of probation conditions or for status offenses, which are “behaviors that are not law violations for adults.”21
Youth that are transferred to the adult system, meanwhile, can be subject to pretrial detention if their family or friends cannot afford bail. As a result, they may be jailed in adult facilities for weeks or months without even being convicted.
Far from locking up youth only as a last resort, the juvenile justice system confines large numbers of children and adolescents for the lowest-level offenses. For almost a quarter of all youths in juvenile facilities, the most serious charge levelled against them is a technical violation (18%) or a status offense (5%).22 These are behaviors that would not warrant confinement except for their status as probationers or minors.
These are youths who are locked up for not reporting to their probation officers, for failing to complete community service or follow through with referrals — or for truancy, running away, violating curfew, or being otherwise “ungovernable.”23 Such minor offenses can result in long stays or placement in the most restrictive environments. Almost half of youths held for status offenses are there for over 90 days, and almost a quarter are held in the restrictive, correctional-style types of juvenile facilities.
Incarceration has serious, harmful effects on a person’s mental and physical health, their economic and social prospects, their relationships, and on the people around them. This is true for adults, of course, but the experience of being removed from their homes and locked up is even more damaging for youth, who are in a critical stage of development and are more vulnerable to abuse. The broad harms of youth incarceration are well documented, from pretrial detention to conditions in juvenile correctional facilities (“youth prisons”) and adult facilities. There is growing consensus that youth confinement should be used only as a last resort, as evidenced by the declining number of incarcerated youth in recent years.
Yet tens of thousands of children and adolescents continue to be locked up each year for low-level offenses. By our most conservative estimation, almost 17,000 youths (1 in 3) charged with low-level offenses could be released today without great risk to public safety. These include over 2,000 youths held for status offenses, 2,000 held for drug offenses other than trafficking, over 3,500 held for public order offenses not involving weapons, and 8,500 held for technical violations.24
State and local officials should also look more closely at the detained population and consider how many of those youths would be better served in the community. Beyond those 17,000 youths in the low-level offense categories we have identified, over 6,00025 others are held before they’ve been found guilty or delinquent; many of these youths could also be considered for release.
Like the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems themselves, the efforts to reverse mass incarceration for adults and to deinstitutionalize justice-involved youth have remained curiously distinct. But the two systems have more problems — and potentially, more solutions — in common than one might think. Like so many adults who are unnecessarily detained in jails, thousands of justice-involved children and adolescents languish in detention centers without even being found delinquent. They, too, are locked up in large numbers for low-level, non-violent offenses. And many youth face similarly dehumanizing conditions when they are locked up in juvenile facilities that look and feel like adult jails and prisons. For advocates and policymakers working to find alternatives to incarceration, ending youth confinement should be a top priority.
With this big picture view, it should be obvious that many improvements can be made to better respond to the behaviors and needs of justice-involved youth. Many juvenile justice-focused organizations have proposed policy changes at every stage of the process,26 but to address some of the issues discussed in this report, policymakers can start by:
Many terms related to the juvenile justice system are contentious. We have elected to refer to people younger than 18 as “youth(s)” and avoid the stigmatizing term “juvenile” except where it is a term of art (“juvenile justice”), a legal distinction (“tried as juveniles”), or the most widely used term (“juvenile facilities”). We also chose to use the terms “confinement” and “incarceration” to describe residential placement, because we concluded that these were appropriate terms for the conditions under which most youth are held (although we recognize that facilities vary in terms of restrictiveness). Finally, the racial and ethnic terms used to describe the demographic characteristics of confined youth (e.g. “American Indian”) reflect the language used in the data sources.
Finally, because this report is directed at people more familiar with the criminal justice system than the juvenile justice system, we occasionally made some language choices to make the transition to juvenile justice processes easier. For example, we use the familiar term “pretrial detention” to refer to the detention of youths awaiting adjudicatory hearings, which are not generally called trials.
In an effort to capture the full scope of youth confinement, this report aggregates data on children and adolescents held in both juvenile and adult facilities. Unfortunately, the juvenile and adult justice system data are not completely compatible, both in terms of vocabulary and the measures made available.
Because we anticipate this report will serve as an introduction to juvenile justice issues for many already familiar with the adult criminal justice system, we have attempted to bridge the language gap between these two systems wherever possible, by providing criminal justice system “translations.” It should be noted, however, that the differences between juvenile and criminal justice system terms reflect real (if subtle) philosophical and procedural differences between the two parallel systems.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) provides easy access to detailed, descriptive data analysis of juvenile residential placements and the youths held in them. In contrast, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) provides very limited information on youth held in other settings. For youths in adult prisons, all that is readily accessible in government reports is their number by sex and by jurisdictional agency (state or federal). In annual government reports on jails, youths are only differentiated by whether they are held as adults or juveniles. Slightly more detailed information is reported on youths in Indian country facilities, but the measures reported are not wholly consistent with the juvenile justice survey, and facility-level analysis is necessary to separate youths from adults for most measures.
Despite these challenges, this report brings together the most recent data available on the number of youths held in various types of facilities and the most serious offense for which they are charged, adjudicated, or convicted. The only children and adolescents included in this analysis are involved in the juvenile- or criminal justice process. Youth who are put in out-of-home placements because their parents or guardian are unwilling or unable to care for them (i.e. dependency cases) are not included in this analysis.
For juvenile facilities, the most recent data available is from 2015, and for adult and Indian country facilities, 2016 data is available. These years matter: while most states set the upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction at 18, in 2015 and 2016, 7 states automatically prosecuted anyone 17 or older as an adult, and 2 states prosecuted anyone over 16 as an adult. For this reason, we expect that as more states continue to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, the balance of youth in adult versus juvenile facilities will shift to greater reliance on juvenile facilities.
To compare racial and ethnic representation in juvenile facilities to the general population of all youths (17 or younger) in the U.S., we used general population data from the 2015 “Child population by race and age group” table by the Kids Count Data Center (The Annie E. Casey Foundation). We used the raw data to aggregate all children under 18 for comparison to the confined population in the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement.
The estimate of the number of youths confined for low-level offenses who could be considered for release includes 16,731 in juvenile facilities in 2015. 2,328 of these youths were held for status offenses, 2,186 for “other drug offenses,” 3,660 for “other public order offenses,” and 8,557 for technical violations. Additionally (although the offense categories are inconsistent with those in the CJRP), Indian country facilities holding only youths age 17 or younger held 60 youths for seemingly low-level offenses: 16 for public intoxication, 2 for DWI/DUI, and 42 for “other unspecified” (this dataset does not include technical violations or status offenses as offense categories). These youths could likely also be considered for release. We did not include youths held in adult prisons and jails in this estimate because offense types were not reported for these youths.
The estimate of the number of youths detained pretrial who could be considered for release includes 6,379 youths detained in juvenile facilities and 56 unconvicted youths in Indian country facilities.
At the time of the survey, 6,379 youths in juvenile facilities were detained awaiting either adjudication, criminal court hearing, or transfer hearing (essentially, they were being held before being found delinquent or guilty). This figure does not include the 2,923 youths detained for technical violations, status offenses, “other drug offenses,” or “other public order offenses” while they awaited these hearings, because we already included them in the roughly 17,000 youths held for low-level offenses that could be released.
“Jails in Indian Country, 2016” reports at least 56 unconvicted youths in facilities holding only people age 17 or younger. This may slightly underreport the unconvicted population, because the status conviction of youths in combined adult and juvenile Indian country facilities was not reported separately from the adults, and one juvenile facility did not report conviction status.
Youths held in adult prisons and jails were not included in this estimate because conviction status was not reported for these youths. However “Jail Inmates in 2016” notes that jails “may hold juveniles before or after they are adjudicated.”
This report was made possible by the generous contributions of individuals across the country who support justice reform. Individual donors give our organization the resources and flexibility to quickly turn our insights into new movement resources.
The author would like to thank her Prison Policy Initiative colleagues for their feedback and assistance in the drafting of this report, and intern Maddy Troilo for her supporting research on changes in youth incarceration in adult facilities over time. Elydah Joyce designed the main graphic, while Bob Machuga created the cover. We also acknowledge all of the donors, researchers, programmers and designers who helped the Prison Policy Initiative develop the Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie series of reports.
The non-profit non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. The organization is most well-known for its big-picture publication Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie that helps the public more fully engage in criminal justice reform. This report builds upon that work and the 2017 analysis of women’s incarceration, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie.
Wendy Sawyer is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. She is the author of Punishing Poverty: The high cost of probation fees in Massachusetts, and most recently, The Gender Divide: Tracking women’s state prison growth.