Juvenile Detention Explained

Updated on March 26, 2021 and originally posted November 13, 2020 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Juvenile detention center

Every day, thousands of young people in the United States are held in juvenile detention facilities while their cases are handled in court. Despite steady declines over the past two decades, more than 15,000 young people were held in detention centers on any given night in 2017, the latest year for which federal data are available.

With so many young people moving in and out of detention centers as they await legal actions on their cases, it’s worth asking: What exactly is juvenile detention and how can being detained affect a young person?

What is juvenile detention?

Juvenile detention is short-term confinement, primarily used after a youth has been arrested, but before a court has determined the youth’s innocence or guilt. Pretrial detention is appropriate only when a court believes a youth to be at risk of committing crimes or fleeing during court processing. A smaller number of young people are in detention centers after their case has been heard, while they are waiting for either a disposition or a placement after a disposition.

“Juvenile detention should never be normal or routine,” said Nate Balis, director of the Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group. “In light of what we know about the negative effects of detention on young people and the continued racial disparities that define juvenile detention in this country, our systems must explore every option and confine young people only in extraordinary cases.”

Nonetheless, one in four delinquency cases in juvenile court involved detention in 2017.

How many young people are in juvenile detention in America and how long can a child be in juvenile detention?

Nationally 195,000 young people were placed in detention centers in 2018. The average stay is 27 days, but even a short stay in juvenile detention can throw a youth off course.

What is a juvenile detention center?

A juvenile detention center generally is a secure facility operated by local authorities or the state. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “In all states, secure detention space is primarily used for temporarily holding juveniles while they await adjudication, disposition or placement elsewhere.”

How many juvenile detention centers are there in the United States?

There are 625 facilities that classify themselves as juvenile detention centers across the United States.

What do youth in juvenile detention centers do while they’re detained?

What happens in juvenile detention centers day-to-day varies by facility, but school-age youth must attend school. Youth are entitled to go outdoors regularly, engage in physical exercise, participate in a range of recreational activities and practice their religion. The rights of youth in detention — such as the right to education; medical and mental health care; due process; access to families, counsel and the courts; and safe and humane treatment — are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, federal laws, state constitutions and laws and case law determined by the courts.

The Foundation has issued a comprehensive set of standards for facilities in response to documented failures to house youth safely and humanely.

What’s the difference between a youth detention center and correctional facility?

The terms youth detention center and youth correctional center often are used interchangeably to describe residential facilities, but there is a clear distinction between them. Young people held in detention are presumed innocent unless and until they are adjudicated in court. The purpose of a detention center is temporary confinement while a young person’s case is being handled in court. By contrast, correctional facilities are longer-term placements for youth who have been adjudicated as delinquent and then ordered by a judge to be confined rather than supervised in the community.

To complete the picture, youth could be confined in detention centers for these reasons, as well:

  • Their case has been adjudicated, but they haven’t been sentenced yet (in other words, awaiting disposition).
  • They have been sentenced to out-of-home placement, but haven’t been transferred yet to that placement (i.e., awaiting placement).
  • They are awaiting a court hearing for allegedly violating the terms of their probation in the community.

Have most of the youth in juvenile detention been charged with violent crimes?

No, the majority of young people in detention have been charged with non-violent offenses, including thousands charged with status offenses, which are behaviors such as truancy that are criminalized for youth, but not for adults. There are youth in detention for breaking probation rules, not breaking the law.

Does juvenile detention make young people worse?

Peer-reviewed research sponsored by the Foundation concludes that a stay in pretrial juvenile detention increases a young person's likelihood of felony recidivism by 33% and misdemeanor recidivism by 11%. In addition to a ticket to deeper justice system involvement, detention often leads to other profound and potentially negative consequences such as exacerbated health issues and separation from family, school, job and community.

These are just some of the ways that detention can have an adverse effect on youth, as well as their communities:

  • Into detention, out of the classroom. Removing a child from their community means removing them from their schooling schedule. And while detention centers that house school-aged children offer education, it’s often inadequate and incongruous with the track that they were on prior to confinement. Consequently, children who are detained are less likely to complete high school or find employment.
  • Worsened health outcomes. When children are pulled from their communities and thrust into the instability that comes with temporary detention, their health often suffers as a consequence — in ways that are both immediately observable and long lasting.
  • Disproportionate punishment. For young people who are African American, Latino and American Indian, the likelihood of detention is greater than their white counterparts, even when controlling for the seriousness of offense and prior history of the individual. Although African Americans only make up 16% of the youth population in the United States, they represent 44% of the confined youth population — and are five times more likely to be held than their white peers. These disparities have prolonged, significant consequences.
  • Lifetime consequences. Young people who are confined in detention centers while decisions on their cases are pending experience more negative outcomes, according to research, than their counterparts who are able to remain at home during this time. Youth who are detained are also more likely to see further involvement — for instance, future arrests — in the criminal justice system than those who are not.
  • A price paid by the whole community. Detaining children not only impacts their lives, it comes at a high cost to their entire community. Temporarily confining youth costs approximately $1 billion every year. With better alternatives, this is an enormous and avoidable price to taxpayers.

Are there racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile detention?

Yes. Young people of color are consistently overrepresented in the nation’s courtrooms and detention centers, youth prisons and other residential institutions. Racial and ethnic disparities begin at arrest and persist throughout the system, intensifying as responses become more restrictive and punitive.

Are alternatives to detention effective?

Instead of locking up young people for any kind of misbehavior, more systems are using alternatives to detention that support youth safely in the community. Jurisdictions participating in the Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative® (JDAI®) have reduced admissions to secure detention by 57% and average daily population by 50% from their pre-JDAI baselines, while protecting public safety, according to 2018 data, the latest available.

Additional resources on juvenile detention

Timely Justice: Improving JDAI Results Through Case Processing Reforms. This JDAI practice guide offers practical steps that juvenile justice systems can take to safely and equitably reduce the use of juvenile detention.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in the Juvenile Justice System. Relative to their peers, LGBT youth are more likely to experience physical, sexual and emotional abuse — particularly in secure settings such as detention. Understanding these risks and the signs of anti-LGBT bias are critical to ensuring that juvenile justice systems are set up to advance the safety and well-being of all youth.

JDAI at 25. This results report, which draws on eight years of JDAI data, tells how participating sites have achieved significant and — in many cases — long-lasting reductions in rates of juvenile detention and juvenile crime.

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