Kids Deserve Better: Why Juvenile Detention Reform Matters

Posted December 5, 2018
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Two young men sitting on a bench in a park

Deten­tion is a piv­otal deci­sion point in the juve­nile jus­tice process. It takes youth who are await­ing a court hear­ing or a move into a cor­rec­tion­al or treat­ment facil­i­ty and tem­porar­i­ly con­fines them instead of allow­ing them to return home or enter an alter­na­tive super­vi­sion pro­gram. Each year across the coun­try, more than 200,000 young peo­ple are admit­ted to deten­tion facil­i­ties and approx­i­mate­ly 16,000 youth are held in deten­tion on any giv­en night.

In the Unit­ed States, the aver­age length of stay is 27 days, yet research indi­cates that even a short turn in deten­tion can have an out­sized influ­ence on court out­comes. It can also mean pro­found and poten­tial­ly life­long neg­a­tive con­se­quences for the young peo­ple involved.

The con­se­quences include:

A tick­et to deep­er sys­tem involve­ment. Youth placed into pre­tri­al deten­tion are far more like­ly to be for­mal­ly charged, found delin­quent and com­mit­ted to youth cor­rec­tions facil­i­ties than sim­i­lar­ly sit­u­at­ed young peo­ple who remain at home pend­ing their court hear­ing, accord­ing to research. Detained youth are also more like­ly to be rear­rest­ed, adju­di­cat­ed or con­vict­ed of new offens­es and incar­cer­at­ed than youth who remain at home await­ing court or pend­ing placement.

Exac­er­bat­ed health issues. Locked deten­tion can cause young peo­ple seri­ous harm, both imme­di­ate and long-term, research indi­cates. Youth who spend time in cus­tody are more like­ly to suf­fer men­tal health prob­lems than com­pa­ra­ble youth who are not detained. Harsh con­di­tions and inten­sive super­vi­sion inside the facil­i­ties can also inten­si­fy symp­toms for youth with seri­ous men­tal health prob­lems or a his­to­ry of trau­ma or abuse.

A derailed aca­d­e­m­ic track. Deten­tion dis­rupts a young person’s school­ing and makes it more like­ly that they will fail class­es or drop out. When com­pared to peers who are not detained, youth who spent time in cus­tody were less like­ly to com­plete high school and also less like­ly to find employment.

While the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of expe­ri­enc­ing juve­nile deten­tion are seri­ous and sig­nif­i­cant, the case against it doesn’t end there.

Deten­tion is also unfair and cost­ly. African-Amer­i­can, His­pan­ic and Amer­i­can Indi­an youth are far more like­ly than their white coun­ter­parts to be detained, even after con­trol­ling for the seri­ous­ness of an offense, offend­ing his­to­ry and oth­er factors.

In addi­tion: Tem­porar­i­ly con­fin­ing youth occurs at a sig­nif­i­cant cost to tax­pay­ers — rough­ly $1 bil­lion per year nation­wide. Though expen­di­tures vary from region to region, the aver­age deten­tion stay costs rough­ly $150 to $300 per day — or at least $70,000 per year for every bed occupied.

A Mod­el for Juve­nile Deten­tion Reform

A quar­ter cen­tu­ry ago, the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion launched a com­pre­hen­sive deten­tion reform mod­el, called the Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive®, to show that deten­tion pop­u­la­tions could be sub­stan­tial­ly and safe­ly reduced. The mod­el has eight core strate­gies — such as col­lab­o­ra­tive and data-dri­ven prob­lem-solv­ing approach­es — that more than 300 cities and coun­ties across the nation have put to use.

Last year, as the ini­tia­tive com­mem­o­rat­ed its first 25 years, the Foun­da­tion issued JDAI at 25: Insights From the Annu­al Results Reports, which notes that JDAI™ com­mu­ni­ties have achieved sig­nif­i­cant and — in many cas­es — long last­ing reduc­tions in both juve­nile incar­cer­a­tion and juve­nile crime.

Join JDAIcon­nect, a free online com­mu­ni­ty that con­nects peo­ple inter­est­ed in youth justice

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