USA: youth confinement

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, 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.

Demographics and disparities among confined youth

Generally speaking, state juvenile justice systems handle cases involving defendants under the age of 18. (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.) 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.

Black and American Indian youth are overrepresented in juvenile facilities, while white youth are underrepresented. These racial disparities 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.

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

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 facilities 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.

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. 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. 99.7% of all youth in these three types of correctional facilities are “restricted by locked doors, gates, or fences” 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.

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.

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

To be sure, many justice-involved youth are found guilty of serious offenses and could conceivably pose a risk in the community.

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