Why Is Detention Reform Important?

Posted November 19, 2013, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Twenty years ago, the Annie E. Casey Foundation launched the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI).  This ambitious national demonstration project promoted policy and practice reforms in juvenile detention, a crucial early phase in the juvenile justice process.   

Why juvenile detention?  Primarily, the Casey Foundation focused on detention reform for three reasons:

An immediate crisis in juvenile detention.

In the early 1990s, as the Annie E. Casey Foundation began planning JDAI, the detention component of the juvenile justice systems in most jurisdictions was arbitrary, ineffective and discriminatory.  Nationally, the average daily population in detention was rising at an unsustainable pace, more than doubling from 13,000 in 1985 to 28,000 by 1997.  As a result of the rapid rise in detention utilization in the late 1980s and the 1990s, detention centers experienced serious and widespread overcrowding, jeopardizing the health and safety of detained youth (and custodial staff), and compromising educational and other services.  In 1985 just 20 percent of detained youth nationwide were confined in overcrowded facilities; a decade later, 62 percent were in overcrowded facilities.

These alarming detention trends were progressing in most jurisdictions without any serious consideration from public officials.  Rather, most policymakers and administrators remained unaware of policy alternatives or management practices that might safely reduce detention populations.  In doing so, they ignored abundant evidence that many detained youth posed minimal danger to public safety, and that many languished in detention for long periods with no benefit for themselves or for public safety.  More than 70 percent of all detention cases in 1995 involved property or drug crimes, public order offenses, technical probation violations, or status offenses.  Just 29 percent of cases involved any violence – and many of these were misdemeanor assault charges.  Yet few jurisdictions systematically screened youth to ensure that detention was only used for those who posed genuine public safety risks, and few invested heavily in detention alternative programs to supervise in the community moderate-risk youth who might otherwise be confined.  Meanwhile, many youth languished in detention for weeks and months due to bottlenecks in case processing and placement delays.  Yet few jurisdictions had procedures to expedite cases and minimize lengths of stay in detention.

A pivotal decision point for court-involved youth

Research shows that placement into a secure detention facility can have an outsized impact on the ultimate case outcomes for court-involved youth – with potentially profound and life-long negative consequences.

Many studies find that youth placed into pre-trial detention are far more likely to be formally charged, found delinquent, and committed to youth corrections facilities than similarly situated youngsters who are permitted to remain at home pending their court hearings.  For instance, a 2013 a study found that West Virginia youth detained pending court were three times as likely to be committed to a corrections facility as youth with identical offending histories who were not detained, mirroring similar results from studies in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, and Ohio. 

Placement into secure detention is associated with serious short- and long-term negative consequences.  Detention disrupts young people’s schooling and exacerbates the likelihood they will fail classes or drop out.  Harsh conditions and invasive supervision inside detention facilities can exacerbate mental health symptoms for those with serious emotional disturbances or a history of trauma or abuse – the majority of the detained population.  Research shows that youth who spend time in custody are less likely to complete high school, less likely to find employment, and more likely to suffer mental health problems than comparable youth who are not detained.  In addition, detained youth are more likely to be re-arrested, adjudicated or convicted for new offenses, and incarcerated than youth who remain at home awaiting court or pending placement.

Source: 2014 JDAI Progress Report

A launching point for deeper, system-wide reforms

While problems in the detention phase of the juvenile court process were (and are) important in and of themselves, Casey Foundation leaders elected to launch JDAI in part because they believed that detention reform would be an effective catalyst for needed changes in other areas of juvenile justice as well.   By reducing the share of youthful offenders detained pending their adjudication and dispositional hearings, Casey leaders were confident that JDAI would decrease the number of youth participating sites committed to correctional institutions.  More broadly, the Casey leadership team hoped that by demonstrating that one facet of juvenile justice – detention – could be made smarter, fairer and more efficient, JDAI would convince policymakers that thoughtful, comprehensive reforms can reduce unnecessary or inappropriate confinement throughout the system.  Casey leaders believed that these changes would improve public safety, redirect public funds to more positive youth development