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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