Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie 2019   Tweet this

By Wendy Sawyer
Press Release
December 19, 2019  

On any given day, over 48,000 youth in the United States are confined in facilities away from home as a result of juvenile justice or criminal justice involvement. Most are held in restrictive, correctional-style facilities, and thousands are held without even having had a trial. But even these high figures represent astonishing progress: Since 2000, the number of youth in confinement has fallen by 60%, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.

What explains these remarkable changes? How are the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems different, and how are they similar? Perhaps most importantly, can those working to reduce the number of adults behind bars learn any lessons from the progress made in reducing youth confinement?

This report answers these questions, beginning with a snapshot of how many justice-involved youth are confined, 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,1 the report highlights these issues as areas ripe for reform for youth as well as adults.

This updated and expanded version of our original 2018 report also examines the dramatic reduction in the confined youth population, and offers insights and recommendations for advocates and policymakers working to shrink the adult criminal justice system.

Pie chart showing the number of youth confined in adult prisons and jails, Indian country facilities, and eight types of juvenile facilities, broken down by offense type.

Demographics and disparities among confined youth

Generally speaking, state juvenile justice systems handle cases involving defendants under the age of 18.2 (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.3) Of the 43,000 youth 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.4

Black and American Indian youth are overrepresented in juvenile facilities, while white youth are underrepresented. These racial disparities5 are particularly pronounced among both Black boys and Black girls, and while American Indian girls make up a small part of the confined population, they are extremely overrepresented relative to their share of the total youth population. While 14% of all youth under 18 in the U.S. are Black, 42% of boys and 35% 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.6

Racial disparities are also evident in decisions to transfer youth from juvenile to adult court. In 2017, Black youth made up 35% of delinquency cases, but over half (54%) of youth judicially transferred from juvenile court to adult court. Meanwhile, white youth accounted for 44% of all delinquency cases, but made up only 31% of judicial transfers to adult court. And although the total number of youth judicially transferred in 2017 was less than half what it was in 2005, the racial disproportionality among these transfers has actually increased over time. Reports also show that in California, prosecutors send Hispanic youth to adult court via “direct file” at 3.4 times the rate of white youth, and that American Indian youth are 1.8 times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence.

Most youth are held in correctional-style facilities

Juvenile court terminology

The terms used in juvenile courts are not the same as those used for adults.

The terms used in the juvenile justice system differ from those used in adult courts, but while they have distinct meanings and describe different processes, in many cases they can be thought of in parallel to each other. In the juvenile system, youth have “adjudicatory hearings” instead of “trials”; they are “adjudicated” rather than “convicted,” and found “delinquent” instead of “guilty.” Youth are given “dispositions” instead of “sentences,” and are “committed” instead of “incarcerated.” While adults and youth in adult jails and prisons are considered either “unconvicted” (or pretrial) or “convicted,” the status of youth in juvenile facilities is either “detained” or “committed.” This distinction is particularly important for this report: “detained” youth are held in juvenile facilities before their juvenile or criminal court hearings, or before decisions have been made about appropriate sanctions or placement. Committed youth have been adjudicated (convicted) and a decision has been made to transfer legal responsibility over them to the state for the period of their disposition (sentence).

See “Juvenile Court Terminology” by the National Juvenile Defender Center for more information.

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 youth more freedom and services. For many youth, “residential placement” in juvenile facilities is virtually indistinguishable from incarceration.

Types of facilities

What are the differences between the various kinds of facilities that confine youth?

Juvenile facilities in the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement (CJRP) self-classify into one of nine categories, which we have divided into “correctional” facilities, which are more restrictive, and “residential-style” facilities, which may allow youths more freedom to participate in community life (school, work, etc.) and/or may provide more tailored programs or services. The definitions for each facility type that follow are from the CJRP glossary, developed by the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Correctional facilities:

  1. Detention center: A short-term facility that provides temporary care in a physically restricting environment for juveniles in custody pending court disposition and, often, for juveniles who are adjudicated delinquent and awaiting disposition or placement elsewhere, or are awaiting transfer to another jurisdiction.
  2. Long-term secure facility: A specialized type of facility that provides strict confinement for its residents. Includes training schools, reformatories, and juvenile correctional facilities.
  3. Reception/diagnostic center: A short-term facility that screens persons committed by the courts and assigns them to appropriate correctional facilities.

Residential-style facilities:

  1. Residential treatment center: A facility that focuses on providing some type of individually planned treatment program for youth (substance abuse, sex offender, mental health, etc.) in conjunction with residential care.
  2. Group home: A long-term facility in which residents are allowed extensive contact with the community, such as attending school or holding a job. Includes halfway houses.
  3. Ranch/wilderness camp: A long-term residential facility for persons whose behavior does not necessitate the strict confinement of a long-term secure facility, often allowing them greater contact with the community. Includes ranches, forestry camps, wilderness or marine programs, or farms.
  4. Shelter: A short-term facility that provides temporary care similar to that of a detention center, but in a physically unrestricting environment. Includes runaway/homeless and other types of shelters.
  5. Boot camp: A secure facility that operates like military basic training. There is emphasis on physical activity, drills, and manual labor. Strict rules and drill instructor tactics are designed to break down youth’s resistance. Length of stay is generally longer than detention but shorter than most long-term commitments.
  6. Other: Includes facilities such as alternative schools and independent living, etc. (In the 2017 Census, no youth were reported in facilities that self-classified as “other.”)

As of 2016, confined youth were held in 1,772 juvenile facilities, including 662 detention centers, 131 shelters, 58 reception/diagnostic centers, 344 group homes, 30 ranch/wilderness camps, 189 long-term secure facilities (“training schools”), and 678 residential treatment centers.

Youth in Indian country7 are held in facilities operated by tribal authorities or the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Most of these youth are held in facilities that only hold people 17 or younger, but some are held in facilities that hold both adults and youth. Indian country facilities are not included in the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement, which makes their populations difficult to compare with those of other juvenile facilities.8

Jails are adult facilities operated by local authorities. They generally hold adults who are detained pretrial or who have been convicted of low-level offenses. Jails are designed for shorter-term periods of incarceration (typically under one year), and generally provide fewer services and programs. According to federal legislation (the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) and the Prison Rape Elimination Act) (PREA), youth charged as adults should be placed in juvenile facilities unless a judge determines otherwise, and when they are held in adult facilities, they are supposed to be separated by sight and sound from incarcerated adults. If they come into contact with adults, it must be under direct staff supervision. Of course, states vary in terms of how strictly they comply with these standards.

Prisons are adult facilities operated by state or federal9 authorities, typically holding people with longer-term sentences. The same federal legislation (JJDPA and PREA) applies to prisons as well as jails.

Most youth in juvenile facilities10 experience distinctly carceral conditions, in facilities that are:

  • Locked: 92% of youth in juvenile facilities are in locked facilities. According to a 2018 report, 52% of long-term secure facilities, 44% of detention centers, and 43% of reception/diagnostic centers also use “mechanical restraints” like handcuffs, leg cuffs, restraining chairs, strait jackets, etc. Forty percent of long-term secure facilities and detention centers isolate youth in locked rooms for four hours or more.
  • Large: 81% are held in facilities with more than 21 “residents.” Over half (51%) are in facilities with more than 51 residents. More than 10% are held in facilities that hold more than 200 youth.
  • Long-term: Two-thirds (66%) of youth are held for longer than a month; about a quarter (24%) are held over 6 months; almost 4,000 youths (8%) are held for over a year.11

Pie chart showing that two-thirds of all confined youth are held in the most restrictive types of facilities: adult prisons and jails, juvenile detention centers, long-term secure facilities, and reception/diagnostic centers

Two out of every three confined youth 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. 4,535 confined youth — nearly 1 in 10 — are incarcerated in adult jails and prisons, where they face greater safety risks and fewer age-appropriate services are available to them.1213 At least another 28,190 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.14 99.7% of all youth in these three types of correctional facilities are “restricted by locked doors, gates, or fences”15 rather than staff-secured, and 60% are in large facilities designed for more than 50 youth.

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.16

But how many of the 17,000 children and teenagers in juvenile detention centers should really be there? According to federal 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 almost 4,000 youth 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 other 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.17

The third correctional-style facility type, reception/diagnostic centers, are often located adjacent to long-term facilities; here, staff 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 youth they hold are there longer than 90 days. More than 1 in 7 youth in these “temporary” facilities is held there for over a year.

Outside of these correctional-style facilities, another 15,400 youth 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 youth (78%) are still in locked facilities rather than staff-secured, and conditions in some of these facilities are reportedly worse than prisons. Almost 9 out of 10 youth in these more “residential” facilities are in residential treatment facilities or group homes. Less frequently, youth are held in ranch or wilderness camps, shelters, or boot camps.

Some facility types are much worse than others

The type of facility where a child is confined can affect their health, safety, access to services, and outcomes upon reentry. Adult prisons and jails are unquestionably the worst places for youth. They are not designed to provide age-appropriate services for children and teens, and according to the Campaign for Youth Justice, youth in adult facilities may be placed in solitary confinement to comply with the PREA safety standard of “sight and sound” separation from incarcerated adults. Youth in adult facilities are also 5 times more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile facilities.

Correctional-style juvenile detention centers and long-term secure “youth prisons” are often very harmful environments, too. In the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement, more youth in detention and corrections programs reported sexual victimization, fear of attack, solitary confinement, strip searches, use of restraints, unnecessary use of force, and poor relations with staff. Correctional-style facilities also tend to be larger, and youth in larger facilities (with more than 25 beds) report higher rates of sexual victimization. Youth in detention centers, in particular, report receiving the fewest education services, such as special education, GED preparation, and job training. These youth are also most likely to report difficulty sleeping because of light, indicating that, like many adult facilities, the lights are left on even at night. For a youth population that typically come with a history of trauma and victimization, confinement under any conditions leads to worse outcomes, but the punitive correctional-style facilities are especially dehumanizing.

Locked up before they’re even tried

Wedge of a pie chart showing that nearly 16,000 youth are detained in juvenile facilities. In 2017, detained youth (that is, those held awaiting a hearing, sentence, or placement) included 3,300 charged with status offenses or technical violations.

To be sure, many justice-involved youth are found guilty of serious offenses and could conceivably pose a risk in the community. But pretrial detention is surprisingly common; judges choose to detain youth in over a quarter (26%) of delinquency cases, resulting in a disturbing number of youth in juvenile facilities who are not even serving a sentence.

Wedge of a pie chart showing that nearly 16,000 youth are detained in juvenile facilities. In 2017, detained youth (that is, those held awaiting a hearing, sentence, or placement) included 3,300 charged with status offenses or technical violations.

More than 9,500 youth in juvenile facilities — or 1 in 5 — haven’t even been found guilty or delinquent, and are locked up before a hearing (awaiting trial). Another 6,100 are detained awaiting disposition (sentencing) or placement. Most detained youth are held in detention centers, but nearly 1,000 are locked in long-term secure facilities — essentially prisons — without even having been committed. Of those, less than half are accused of violent offenses.18

Even if pretrial detention might be justified in some serious cases, over 3,200 youth are detained for technical violations of probation or parole, or for status offenses, which are “behaviors that are not law violations for adults.”19

Once again mirroring the adult criminal justice system, youth pretrial detention is marred by racial disparity. Less than 21% of white youth with delinquency cases are detained, compared to 32% of Hispanic youth, 30% of Black youth, 26% of American Indian youth, and 25% of Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander youth. Time held pretrial isolates youth from their families and communities and exposes them to the risk of victimization while detained. Yet in 2017, over 40% of detained youth had been held for longer than 30 days, and nearly 500 had already been detained for over a year.

Finally, youth that are transferred to the adult system 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.

Incarcerated for minor offenses

Wedge of a pie chart showing that over 8,000 youth are confined for status offenses or technical violations. In 2017, 1,690 were held for status offenses and 6,651 were held for technical violations.

Far from locking up youth only as a last resort, the juvenile justice system confines large numbers of children and teenagers for the lowest-level offenses. For nearly 1 in 5 youth in juvenile facilities, the most serious charge levelled against them is a technical violation (15%) or a status offense (4%).20 These are behaviors that would not warrant confinement except for their status as probationers or as minors.

Wedge of a pie chart showing that over 8,000 youth are confined for status offenses or technical violations. In 2017, 1,690 were held for status offenses and 6,651 were held for technical violations.

These are youth 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.”21 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.

Progress toward decarceration of the juvenile justice system

The fact that nearly 50,000 youth are confined today — often for low-level offenses or before they’ve had a hearing — signals that reforms are badly needed in the juvenile justice system. Confinement remains a punishing, and often traumatizing, experience for youth who typically already have a history of trauma and victimization. Without discounting the many ongoing problems discussed in this report, however, there is another, more positive story about juvenile justice reform.

Chart showing that the one-day count of youth in juvenile justice residential placement facilities (not adult facilities) has dropped by over 60 percent since 2000.The number of youth confined in juvenile facilities has dropped by over 60% since its peak in 2000, while the adult incarcerated population (which peaked later) has fallen just 10% since 2007. The number of youth held in adult prisons and jails has also dropped dramatically (see that chart here), although nearly 1 in 10 confined youth are still held in adult facilities.

Policymakers focused on the juvenile justice system have responded far more rationally to the falling crime rate and to the mounting evidence of “what works” compared to those working on the adult criminal justice system. At a time when a 50% reduction in the adult prison and jail population over 10 or 15 years still seems radical to many, the juvenile system has already cut the number of confined youth by 60% since 2000, and continues to decarcerate at a rate of roughly 5% year over year. The number of youth in adult prisons and jails has also dropped by over 60% since 2000. And over the same period, nearly 1,300 juvenile facilities have closed, including over two-thirds of the largest facilities. From an adult criminal justice reform perspective, this is enviable progress.

The progress toward decarceration in the juvenile system can’t be attributed to any single change; rather, historical factors, ongoing research, and dogged advocacy efforts all played important roles. Juvenile crime rates dropped. Some of the most egregious conditions of confinement were widely publicized, jolting policymakers to action. Adolescent brain research made it impossible to deem youth fully culpable and incapable of change. Evidence piled up showing that confinement leads to worse outcomes.

Much of the progress can be attributed to the work of advocates who pushed for federal legislation to protect confined youth (especially PREA and the JJDPA), and for state laws that “raised the age” of juvenile court jurisdiction, discouraged transfers to adult courts, and allowed for more individualized sentencing. Many of these strategies have parallels in the criminal justice reform movement, such as repealing mandatory minimum sentences, while others, like “raise the age,” don’t really apply. But juvenile justice reform advocates have also had success with strategies to both improve conditions and reduce the use of confinement that the broader criminal justice reform movement can adopt.

An inexhaustive list of successful reform strategies that have been used to decarcerate the juvenile justice system, and that could be be adapted and applied to the adult criminal justice system, includes:

  • Closing and repurposing prisons and detention centers, and redirecting resources to serve people in their communities: Missouri closed its correctional-style “training schools” 30 years ago, replacing them with a well-staffed network of smaller, dorm-like “treatment centers” focused on rehabilitative programming. This has become known as the “Missouri Model” of juvenile justice reform. While there have been no comparable statewide initiatives to close adult prisons, the Vera Institute of Justice and the Prison Law Office have taken officials from various states to visit prisons in Northern Europe to see for themselves how a more humane correctional system can enhance rehabilitation efforts and reduce the harms of incarceration.
  • Developing programs to safely serve people charged with violent offenses in their homes and communities: While efforts to reduce adult prison and jail populations generally exclude people charged with violent offenses, juvenile justice experts have pushed for “no reject policies,” recognizing that home- and community-based interventions are more effective than incarceration for youth charged with all kinds of offenses. The field has developed evidence-based programs that reduce violence and delinquent, criminal, and aggressive behavior among youth with “elevated risk levels” — without confinement. Criminal justice reform advocates have begun to recognize the need for new approaches to violence, and can look to these programs as models for supportive, non-carceral alternatives.
  • Changing laws to make certain offenses “non-jailable”: In the juvenile justice context, states like Utah and Massachusetts have removed status offenses from juvenile court jurisdiction, and federal legislation (the JJDPA) mandates the deinstitutionalization of status offenders. (The JJDPA makes an exception for youth who have violated a valid court order (the “VCO exception”), but several states have passed laws to counteract that exception.) A number of states, including California, Hawaii, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas, have also ended commitment to secure juvenile facilities for low-level or nonviolent offenses.
  • Issuing civil citations in lieu of arrest to divert people away from court intervention: Delaware’s Juvenile Civil Citation program and Florida’s Judicial Circuit Civil Citation and Similar Prearrest Diversion program are examples of two statewide efforts to offer youth accused of misdemeanors alternative, community-based sanctions, such as family counseling and treatment for substance abuse or mental health, and restorative measures such as community service, apology letters, community impact statements, restitution, etc. While cite-and-release programs are common in the adult criminal justice system, they generally serve to prevent jail detention, not prosecution. These youth programs, however, allow youth to avoid prosecution and its consequences altogether. From November 2018 to October 2019, nearly 10,000 (or 62%) of eligible youth in Florida avoided formal prosecution through pre-arrest diversion.
  • Capping sentences to reduce time under correctional supervision: Kentucky, Utah, and Tennessee have set limits on the amount of time youth can be in out of home placement, on probation, and/or under court supervision, and Georgia reduced maximum sentences for certain felonies from 5 years to 18 months. Such limits are rare in the adult system, where, for example, indeterminate sentences are the norm and long probation sentences often lead to further supervision or incarceration — but Florida’s two year cap on probation sentences (Fla. Stat. S 948.04) stands out as one example of this strategy applied in the adult system.
  • Shifting funding to develop and expand community-based alternatives to incarceration: Just last year, Tennessee committed $4.5 million per year to expand community-based services and to provide juvenile courts with more treatment options. Georgia, which created a grant program in 2013 for counties that reduce the number of committed youth, has shifted $30 million to community-based alternatives and closed several juvenile facilities. This “justice reinvestment” model has been implemented in many states’ adult systems as well, but these examples show the value in focusing on “front end” reforms to reduce overall incarceration.
  • Recognizing and addressing the impact of trauma on justice-involved populations: An estimated 90% of justice-involved youth have experienced serious trauma in their lifetime. Understanding the impact of trauma on cognitive development and behavior, policymakers and practitioners have increasingly called for trauma-informed care — not punishment — for justice-involved youth. Yet although incarcerated adults also typically have a history of traumatic victimization, recognition of past trauma has yet to inform sentencing and treatment for most justice-involved adults. Making policymakers and the public more aware of the link between victimization and justice system involvement could help shift political winds to take a less punitive, and more supportive, approach.


This “big picture” report not only reveals ways in which the juvenile justice system must improve, but also offers lessons from progress that has already been made. States have reduced the number of youth in confinement by more than half without seeing an increase in crime — a victory that should embolden policymakers to reduce incarceration further, for youth and adults alike.

By our most conservative estimates, states could release at least 13,500 more youth today without great risk to public safety. These include almost 1,700 youth held for status offenses, 1,800 held for drug offenses other than trafficking, over 3,300 held for public order offenses not involving weapons, and 6,700 held for technical violations. 22 States should also look more closely at youth detained pretrial. Beyond youth detained for those low-level offense categories, over 7,00023 others are held before they’ve been found guilty or delinquent; many, if not all, of these youth would be better served in the community.

Beyond releasing and resentencing youth, states should remove all youth from adult jails and prisons, close large juvenile facilities, and invest in non-residential community-based programs.24 Legislators should continue to update laws to reflect our current understanding of brain development and criminal behavior over the life course, such as raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction and ending the prosecution of youth as adults.25

But lawmakers who support reducing incarceration among youth should also consider supporting radical reforms to the adult criminal justice system. Like youth confinement,26 adult incarceration inflicts lasting physical, mental, and economic harm on individuals and families. And falling rates of both youth crime and youth incarceration provide evidence that bold reforms — such as making more offenses “non-jailable” and expanding community-based alternatives to incarceration — could be applied to the adult system while maintaining public safety.

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. The momentum of decarceration in the juvenile justice system must continue, and it should inspire bolder reforms in the criminal justice system as well.

A note about language used in this report

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.

Read the language note


  1. A full explanation of the juvenile justice process is beyond the scope of this report. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention offers a concise overview and diagram of the Juvenile Justice System Structure & Process. Prof. Michele Deitch authored a more comprehensive overview of the history, standards, legislation, and contemporary issues related to the juvenile justice system in Ch. 1 of the National Institute of Corrections’ “Desktop Guide to Quality Practice for Working with Youth in Confinement” (2014).  ↩
  2. Each state decides what age limits and statutes fall under the jurisdiction of their juvenile justice system and who can be prosecuted within the criminal justice system. Currently, 5 states continue to automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults — Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin. Missouri raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 17 in 2018; the law will go into effect January 1, 2021. Additionally, some states also define the lower bounds of the juvenile justice system; in North Carolina, for example, children as young as 6 can be adjudicated in the juvenile justice system.  ↩
  3. In 2016, 23 states and the District of Columbia had at least one provision that allowed youth to be prosecuted as adults with no specified minimum age. In the states that specified a minimum age for transferring youth to criminal court, the youngest children that could be transferred were 10 years old (in Iowa and Wisconsin).  ↩
  4. These young children are sometimes confined for long periods of time. At the time of the survey, about 13% of children 12 or younger had been held for more than 6 months; 25 of them had already been held for over a year.  ↩
  5. The W. Haywood Burns Institute provides detailed data analysis of racial disparities in youth incarceration; for its analysis of trends in racial disparities, see the 2016 report “Stemming the Rising Tide: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Youth Incarceration & Strategies for Change.” For another, more concise overview of the history and research on widening racial disparities among justice-involved youth, see Teen Vogue’s 2018 article, “The Criminal Justice System Discriminates Against Children of Color.” Data on the U.S. youth population by race and ethnicity for a given year can be found at The Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center.  ↩
  6. Girls are also represented more in Indian country facilities than they are in all other juvenile facilities; girls make up 38% of all youth in Indian country facilities, compared to 15% of all youth in all other juvenile facilities.  ↩
  7. According to 18 U.S.C. S 1151, “Indian country” refers to “(a) all land within the limits of any Indian reservation… (b) all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States… and (c) all Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished….”  ↩
  8. Some details are available in “Jails in Indian Country, 2016,” including a list of facilities by state, the number of youths 17 or younger held in each by gender, rated capacity of each facility, offense data, and conviction status. Unfortunately, youth in Indian country facilities cannot be compared to those in other juvenile facilities by age or offense type (these are reported differently than in the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement), and data on security type (locked versus staff-secured) and length of stay are not reported for Indian country facilities.  ↩
  9. In 2017, 893 youth in adult prisons were incarcerated in state prisons. 42 youths age 17 or younger were under the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) jurisdiction; they were housed in unspecified private facilities contracted by the BOP.  ↩
  10. This does not include youth in Indian country facilities, as not all of these details are available in the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ report, “Jails in Indian Country, 2016.”  ↩
  11. These time frames were measures of “days since admission” at the time of the survey, so they actually measure how long youth had already been held, not a disposition (sentence) length. These time frames are therefore not necessarily reflective of how long surveyed youths were ultimately confined.  ↩
  12. According to federal legislation (the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, or JJDPA, and the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA), youth charged as adults should be put in juvenile residential placement, not in adult facilities, unless a judge determines after a hearing that they cannot be put in placement. When they are held in adult facilities, they must be housed separately and protected from physical and “sight and sound” contact with adults. When youth and adults come into contact in these facilities, it should only be under direct staff supervision. Furthermore, facilities should avoid putting youth in isolation to comply with these standards. State compliance with JJDPA and with PREA’s “Youthful Inmates Standard” varies, however.  ↩
  13. The Campaign for Youth Justice details many of the problems with incarcerating youth in adult facilities in its fact sheets, “Key Facts: Youth in the Justice System” and Let’s Get Children Out of Adult Courts, Jails & Prisons. In 2016, The Atlantic reported, in greater depth, the risks of sexual abuse and violence to youth in adult facilities. Richard E. Redding’s report, “The Effects of Adjudicating And Sentencing Juveniles As Adults: Research and Policy Implications” in Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice (2003) discusses the impact of trying and sentencing youth as adults on deterrence, case outcomes, and recidivism, and the conditions of confinement differences between adult and juvenile facilities.  ↩
  14. The 28,190 youth in detention centers, long-term secure facilities, and reception/diagnostic centers discussed in this section do not include those in similar facilities in Indian country. While most of the Indian country facilities holding youth age 17 or younger have “Juvenile Detention” or “Detention Center” in their names, “Jails in Indian Country, 2016” does not provide comparable facility details those in the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement.  ↩
  15. The Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement states that “locks indicated” means “[the] facility indicated that juveniles are restricted within the facility or its grounds by locked doors, gates, or fences some or all of the time.”  ↩
  16. Of the 16,858 youth in detention centers in 2017, 10,639 (63%) were detained before adjudication/conviction or disposition/sentencing. 7,495 were detained awaiting juvenile court adjudication (hearing), 726 were detained awaiting a criminal court hearing, 277 were detained awaiting a transfer hearing, and 2,141 were adjudicated but were detained awaiting disposition (sentencing). 3,133 (19%) were committed after adjudication or criminal conviction. The remaining 3,086 (18%) were either detained awaiting placement, placed there as part of a diversion arrangement, or were held for “other/unknown” reasons.  ↩
  17. For more on “youth prisons,” see Youth First Initiative’s website; “The Facts Report” has more detailed descriptions comparing youth prisons to adult prisons. For more on conditions of confinement in juvenile facilities, see “Survey of Youth in Residential Placement: Conditions of Confinement” by Andrea J. Sedlak, Ph.D. (May 2017). Note that the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement data is from 2003; the survey has only been conducted once so more recent data is not available.  ↩
  18. Of the 986 youth detained in long-term facilities, 440 are held for person (violent) offenses. 187 are held for property offenses, and 359 are held for technical violations or drug, public order, or status offenses.  ↩
  19. In “Juveniles in Residential Placement, 2013” (2016), the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention defines status offenses as “behaviors that are not law violations for adults, such as running away, truancy, and incorrigibility.” For a deep dive into status offenses, see Vera Institute for Justice’s 2017 report “Just Kids: When Misbehaving Is a Crime .”  ↩
  20. In 21 states, an even greater portion of youth in juvenile facilities are held for these offenses, including 38% in New Mexico; 37% in Nebraska; 36% in North Carolina; 34% in Arizona; 32% in Alaska; 30% in West Virginia; 29% in Michigan; 27% in Alabama and New York; 26% in Pennsylvania; 25% in Wyoming; 23% in California, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, and North Dakota; 22% in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas; 21% in Virginia; and 20% in Hawaii. Source: Detailed Offense Profiles for each state in 2017 from the EZACJRP U.S. & State Profiles .  ↩
  21. Although the JJDPA’s “Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders” requirement states that youth charged with status offenses should not be placed in secure confinement, courts in some states take advantage of an exception allowing judges to confine youth for status offenses for up to 7 days, if the offense violates a valid court order, such as “attend school regularly.” In FY 2016, this “valid court order exception” was used to confine 5,591 youth for status offenses in 24 states.  ↩
  22. See the methodology for details about this estimate. For those curious about what behaviors are included in some of these offense categories, the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement Glossary states that “other drug offenses” include “drug possession or use, possession of drug paraphernalia, visiting a place where drugs are found, etc.” and “other public order offenses” include “obstruction of justice (escape from confinement, perjury, contempt of court, etc.), non-violent sex offenses, cruelty to animals, disorderly conduct, traffic offenses, etc.” 13,500 is a conservative estimate based on the most obvious low-level offenses, including status offenses, technical violations, and the offenses listed above. A more aggressive estimate could include all non-violent offenses.  ↩
  23. Our estimate includes 6,995 youth detained in juvenile facilities awaiting juvenile court adjudication, criminal court hearing, or transfer hearing, as well as 56 unconvicted youth in Indian country facilities. It does not include any of the 3,600 youth detained in adult jails in 2017, even though many are likely unconvicted, because their conviction status was not reported. See the methodology for details.  ↩
  24. Many juvenile justice-focused organizations have proposed policy changes at every stage of the process. A few excellent examples include recommendations from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Campaign for Youth Justice (pages 38-44), W. Haywood Burns Institute (pages 13-15), and the Youth First Initiative.  ↩
  25. For a summary of this research, see Community-Based Responses to Justice-Involved Young Adults by Vincent Schiraldi, Bruce Western, and Kendra Bradner (2015) .  ↩
  26. The broad harms of youth incarceration are well documented, from pretrial detention to conditions in juvenile correctional facilities (“youth prisons”) and adult facilities. While incarceration inflicts serious harm to incarcerated adults, the experience of being removed from their homes and locked up is uniquely damaging for youth, who are in a critical stage of development and are more vulnerable to abuse than adults.  ↩

See all the footnotes

Read about the data

In an effort to capture the full scope of youth confinement, this report aggregates data on youth 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 terminology 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 youth 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. The approximately 5,000 children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for immigration reasons are also not included, since they are not held there due to juvenile or criminal justice involvement. While these various systems that keep children in out-of-home arrangements are interrelated, an analysis of the impact of immigration or child welfare policies on youth justice system involvement is beyond the scope of this report.

Data sources:

  • Juvenile facilities: Most of the data in this report comes from the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement (CJRP) in 2017. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) reports one-day counts of youth under 21 in “juvenile residential facilities for court-involved offenders” on the Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement (EZACJRP) website. It includes facility data including facility self-classification (type), size, operation (local, state, or private), and whether it is locked or staff secure. It also includes data on the youth held in these facilities, including offense type, placement status, days since admission, sex, race, and age. The analysis of juvenile facility characteristics and demographics of youth in juvenile facilities are based on cross tabulation using the “National Crosstabs” tool.

    The Juvenile Residential Facility Census Databook: 2000-2016 (JRFC) was used to supplement the CJRP data, and provided more information about the number, size, and type of juvenile facilities over time.

  • Adult jails: The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports the number of people age 17 or younger held in local jails with a breakdown of how many are held as adults versus juveniles in Table 3 of Jail Inmates in 2017.
  • Adult prisons: BJS reports the yearend count of “prisoners age 17 or younger under jurisdiction of federal correctional authorities or the custody of state correctional authorities” in Table 11 of Prisoners in 2017. (The BJS Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT) — Prisoners also reports these counts from 2000-2016.) Prisoners in 2017 states that “the Federal Bureau of Prisons holds prisoners age 17 or younger in private contract facilities,” but it is unclear which facilities actually hold these youth. We included these facilties in our count of adult prisons, but it is possible that the 42 youth under Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) jurisdiction in 2017 may have been captured in the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement data, and therefore it’s possible they were double-counted.
  • Indian country: BJS reports the number of youths age 17 and younger in Indian country jails by facility and sex in Appendix table 4 of Jails in Indian Country, 2016. Although BJS provides a national estimate using data imputed for nonresponse in the same table (estimating 110 males and 60 females), we used the reported numbers (84 males and 52 females) because they correspond to the more detailed facility-level data. Using the breakdown by facility, we were able to determine how many youth are held in facilities that only hold youth versus those in combined adult/juvenile facilities. These youth are included in our total population of youth confinement, but excluded from analysis of the characteristics of juvenile facilities and youth in residential placement, which is based on the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement (CJRP) data. BJS reports some details that are similar to CJRP data, but do not match them enough to the two combine datasets (for example, offense categories are different, completely excluding technical violations and status offenses).

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 2018 “Child population by race and age group” table by the Kids Count Data Center (The Annie E. Casey Foundation).

The estimate of the number of youth confined for low-level offenses who could be considered for release (in the Conclusions section) includes 13,506 held in juvenile facilities on a given day in 2017. 1,690 of these youth were held for status offenses, 1,820 for “other drug offenses,” 3,345 for “other public order offenses,” and 6,651 for technical violations. Additionally (although the offense categories are inconsistent with those in the CJRP), Indian country facilities holding only youth age 17 or younger held 60 youth 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 youth in Indian country facilities could also be considered for release, but they are not included in this estimate. We did not include youth held in adult prisons and jails in this estimate because offense types were not reported for them.

The estimate of the number of youth detained pretrial who could be considered for release includes 6,995 youth detained in juvenile facilities and 56 unconvicted youth in Indian country facilities.

At the time of the survey, 6,995 youth 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 2,558 youth 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 13,500 youth held for low-level offenses that could be released.

Jails in Indian Country, 2016 reports at least 56 unconvicted youth in facilities holding only people age 17 or younger. This may slightly underreport the unconvicted population, because the conviction status of youth 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 youth. However Jail Inmates in 2017 notes that jails “may hold juveniles before or after they are adjudicated.”

Read the entire methodology


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, as well as reviewers from the Youth First Initiative and the Campaign for Youth Justice. Elydah Joyce helped design 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.

About the Prison Policy Initiative

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 analysis of women’s incarceration, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie.

About the author

Wendy Sawyer is the Research Director at the Prison Policy Initiative. She is the co-author, with Peter Wagner, of Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie and States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2018. She is also the author of the original 2018 Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie report, as well as The Gender Divide: Tracking women’s state prison growth and Punishing Poverty: The high cost of probation fees in Massachusetts.

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