By Wendy Sawyer
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.
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.
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.
Most youth in juvenile facilities10 experience distinctly carceral conditions, in facilities that are:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.