What Is Juvenile Justice?

Posted December 12, 2020, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

What is juvenile justice?

Juvenile justice in the United States is a collection of state and local court-based systems whose purpose is to respond to young people who come into contact with law enforcement and are accused of breaking the law. As part of the legal process, juvenile courts hear those cases to determine whether the youth violated the law and, if so, decide on a proper response. State and local juvenile corrections agencies (including probation and residential custody) manage the rehabilitative programs, services and sanctions provided to help young people stop further delinquent behavior.

Juvenile vs. adult justice system

Community safety is a shared goal, but unlike the adult court system, the juvenile justice system does not recognize punishment as a legitimate purpose. Rather, its stated goal is to help young people avoid future delinquency and mature into law-abiding adults. Toward that end, the juvenile justice system has traditionally protected the confidentiality of court-involved youth.

How many young people are in the juvenile justice system?

In 2018, the most recent year for which data are available, about 750,000 young people were referred to juvenile courts nationwide for delinquent offenses that violate the criminal code, and another 101,000 for status offenses (such as running away, consuming alcohol or skipping school) that would not be illegal if committed by adults.1

Of the delinquency cases, 422,000 (57%) were formally processed in court, of which 220,000 were adjudicated delinquent (akin to a guilty conviction in adult court). Among youth who were adjudicated delinquent, the largest share (139,000) were placed on probation, and a much smaller number (62,000) were removed from home and placed in correctional institutions or other residential facilities.2

The 2018 data did not include a national single-day count of all young people in institutions; the most recent recording of that number, on Oct. 25, 2017, found that 43,580 youth were held in residential facilities as a result of delinquency charges, including 16,000 in pretrial detention and 27,000 committed to residential facilities following adjudication.3

What are the steps or stages in the juvenile justice system?

The juvenile justice system is a multistage process: (1) delinquent behavior, (2) referral, (3) intake/diversion, (4) transfer/waiver, (5) detention, (6) adjudication, (7) disposition, (8) juvenile corrections and (9) aftercare.

  1. Delinquent Behavior

    It is developmentally normal for teenagers of all races and ethnicities to be involved in minor acts of delinquency.4 These acts occur in every neighborhood, but consequences vary. In neighborhoods and schools with very little police presence, delinquency may be unseen by law enforcement. Or it may be quickly dismissed, such as when a police officer breaks up a party without making any arrests, or when a teacher handles disorderly conduct or in-school fights without involving the justice system. In neighborhoods and schools with greater police presence, youth are more likely to have their delinquent behavior criminalized. Black students are more likely than white students to attend a school being patrolled by law enforcement officers,5 which contributes to their overrepresentation in arrest numbers.
  2. Referral

    A young person enters the juvenile justice system with an arrest or referral. While the vast majority of referrals come from police, youth also can be referred by educators, parents, alleged crime victims or other members of the community.
  3. Intake or Diversion

    Once a young person is referred, intake workers at the juvenile court or probation agency or attorneys in the prosecutor’s office determine whether the case should be formally processed in juvenile court, handled informally (diverted from court) or dismissed.
  4. Transfer or Waiver

    Also at the intake stage, youth accused of very serious offenses may be transferred (or waived) out of the juvenile court to stand trial as adults in criminal court. In some states, transfers can be ordered by a prosecutor, but in most states the transfer decision is made by a juvenile court judge in response to a recommendation for transfer from the prosecutor or intake worker. Many states have statutory provisions that automatically transfer youth accused of certain offenses, though some of these states also have provisions allowing for judges to transfer youth back to juvenile court in at least some cases.
  5. Detention

    For cases formally processed in juvenile court, the next decision is whether to detain the young person until his or her adjudication hearing, or to permit the young person to remain at home during the pre-adjudication period. In most states, judges order pretrial detention only when the young person is deemed a danger to the community or a flight risk. Typically, a detention hearing is convened within 24 hours of arrest or other referral. In 2018, 26% of youths formally petitioned in juvenile court were detained.6
  6. Adjudication

    In this phase, the young person may be adjudicated delinquent, roughly equivalent to being found guilty in criminal court. Alternatively, the youth may be found innocent or the charges may be dismissed. As in the adult justice system, the vast majority of cases in juvenile court are not contested in court. Instead, they are resolved in plea agreements in which the youth admits to a lesser charge, or in consent decrees or similar agreements to defer prosecution while the young person adheres to specific conditions, which in most cases includes a period of informal probation supervision. If the case is contested and an adjudication hearing takes place, a juvenile court judge rules based on the evidence presented in court by prosecutors and defense attorneys. There are no jury trials in juvenile court.
  7. Disposition

    After a youth is adjudicated delinquent, the next step is a dispositional hearing, which is like a sentencing hearing in adult court. Typically, prior to this hearing, a probation officer examines the case, interviews the young person and develops a recommended intervention plan. During the hearing, a judge reviews the plan, hears additional input from prosecution, defense attorneys and perhaps the young person and his/her family and determines the disposition of the case.
  8. Juvenile Corrections (Including Probation and Residential Custody)

    More than 90% of youth adjudicated delinquent are sentenced either to community supervision, better known as probation, or to residential placement.
    1. Probation

      By far the most common disposition for youth adjudicated delinquent is probation. Indeed, 63% of all adjudications in 2018 — 139,000 cases — resulted in a disposition to probation. (In addition, 72,000 youth who entered into consent decrees or had their cases deferred were placed informally on probation and 49,000 more youth were placed on informal probation after their cases were diverted from court at intake.) Under probation arrangements, youth on probation remain at home under the supervision of a probation officer and may be required to adhere to rules, participate in mandatory treatment activities, perform community service and/or pay restitution. Failure to comply with these rules and requirements may result in a probation violation and possible placement into a residential facility (for those adjudicated and formally disposed to probation) or may result in youth being returned to court, adjudicated delinquent and placed either on formal probation or in a residential facility (for those who were diverted or placed on informal probation as part of a consent decree).
    2. Placement

      Just over one-fourth of youth adjudicated delinquent in 2018 (28%, about 62,000 young people) were removed from their homes and placed into residential facilities. These facilities vary widely in their characteristics. Some are large (100 beds or more) and some small (15 beds or fewer); some feature correctional designs that closely mirror adult prisons and some are group homes or residential treatment centers akin to the child welfare and mental health systems; some are locked and/or fenced, while some are secured only by staff; and some are operated by states, while others are operated by local governments or by private businesses or nonprofit organizations.
  9. Aftercare

    For youth who are removed from home and placed in a correctional institution or other residential facility after being adjudicated, the final phase of the process may be a period of aftercare, where the young person is supervised and supported during the transition back to the community.

Does diversion from the juvenile justice system work?

Not all delinquency cases referred to the juvenile justice system are formally processed in court. Some are dismissed, others are diverted (handled informally outside the justice system) and still others are transferred for prosecution in adult criminal courts.

Research comparing the outcomes for the youth under different scenarios has yielded two primary findings:

  • Diversion — handling cases outside the justice system — typically leads to better outcomes than formal processing in juvenile court. The preponderance of evidence indicates that youth whose cases are formally processed in juvenile court typically have worse outcomes than similar youth whose cases are handled informally, both in terms of future involvement in the justice system and success in education and employment. This is especially true for youth accused of lower-level misbehavior and those who do not have a long history of past arrests.78
  • Transfer or waiver to adult court does not reduce rates of subsequent justice system involvement and may increase them. Some studies have found that transfer has a neutral effect on subsequent justice system involvement,910 while others show that transfer leads to worse outcomes.1112

Problems in America’s juvenile justice system

Though America’s juvenile courts were founded on noble ideals, they have suffered from serious flaws and endemic abuses since their founding at the turn of the previous century.

  • Widespread violence and maltreatment in juvenile facilities. Since the first juvenile reformatories were created in the 19th century, facilities dedicated to housing and rehabilitating youth have been prone to sometimes horrific abuses. The Casey Foundation has identified systemic or recurring violence in juvenile corrections facilities across the nation. This troubling evidence shows that large, conventional juvenile corrections facilities — or plainly stated, youth prisons — are inherently prone to abuse.
  • Pervasive overreliance on confinement, even for youth accused of minor misbehavior posing minimal risk to public safety. In 1974, when Congress first enacted the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, more than 640,000 youth were admitted to juvenile detention or corrections facilities, and the daily population of youth in confinement was 79,000.13 Back then, an estimated 20% of all boys in juvenile facilities and 70% of all girls were confined for status offenses, not delinquency.14
  • Glaring racial and ethnic disparities. Youth of color, especially Black youth, are subject to harsher treatment than white youth at most every stage of juvenile justice. For instance, Black youth were 15% of all youth in the United States in 2018 but overrepresented at every stage:
    • 35% of youth referred to juvenile courts for delinquency;
    • 37% of youth formally petitioned in court;
    • 40% of youth placed in pretrial detention;
    • 42% of youth committed to residential placement; and
    • 52% of youth waived to stand trial as adults in criminal court.15
    Moreover, research consistently has found that offending rates differ only modestly by race and ethnicity for most offense categories and that differences in behavior cannot fully explain the overrepresentation of youth of color in the justice system.16
  • Failure to protect young people’s legal rights. Because the juvenile justice system was established to serve and support youth rather than punish them, the courts historically operated with few procedural safeguards to protect young people’s rights. This often led to egregious maltreatment of young people, including lack of legal representation, no presumption of innocence or right to question one’s accusers and harsh punishment (including incarceration) for behaviors that would never result in similar sanctions if committed by adults. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed many of these flaws in a series of decisions in the 1960s and 1970s.

How has the juvenile justice system made progress?

America’s juvenile justice system has made encouraging progress in recent times, including:

  • A national movement for detention reform. Launched in 1992, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative® (JDAI) has helped jurisdictions throughout the country sharply reduce reliance on pre-trial detention through core strategies, such as greater use of objective decision making and effective alternatives to detention. JDAI® is operating in more than 300 counties in 40 states nationwide, home to roughly one-third of the nation’s adolescents. Many of JDAI’s eight core principles for detention have become standard practices throughout the nation. In recent years, JDAI’s focus has expanded to other parts of the juvenile justice system, including reducing the use of confinement following adjudication and transforming juvenile probation practices.
  • Better understanding about adolescent behavior and brain development. Breakthroughs in brain imaging technologies and behavioral science show that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25. From adolescent brain development research, we understand why adolescents are more prone than adults to risk-taking and law-breaking behaviors, and why most will age out of these behaviors naturally without any intervention from the court. This research has spurred a series of Supreme Court decisions outlawing the death penalty and life without parole sentences for crimes committed during adolescence, as well as new laws in many states to raise the maximum age of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction because they see clear benefits of keeping youth out of the adult criminal justice system.
  • New evidence on what works. Over the past four decades, scholars have amassed evidence about what does and doesn’t work to steer young people away from delinquency, including both general principles and strategies for how to intervene effectively with youth and specific evidence-based intervention program models with proven success in reducing young people’s reoffending rates.1718 Scholars also have documented the powerful effects of early childhood trauma in the lives of many youth who become enmeshed in the juvenile justice system, and they have developed practices that help youth address and heal from traumatic experiences in their lives.19
  • A big drop in juvenile incarceration. Since juvenile confinement peaked in 1999 at more than 107,000 young people, the number of young people held in residential facilities as a result of delinquent conduct has declined steadily. By 2017, the last year for which data are available, total confinement on a single day was 43,580 — down 59% from the 1999 high. While much of the decline was due to substantial reduction in juvenile arrests, especially for serious violent offenses, many states have begun to limit the use of confinement, especially for less serious offenses.2021 Many states have been closing large juvenile correctional institutions (sometimes called training schools, but more accurately described as youth prisons). From 2000 to 2018, the number of juvenile facilities housing more than 100 young people fell from 264 to 68, and the number of youth housed in these large facilities fell 84%.22

What are some challenges with the juvenile justice system?

While it has made progress, our nation’s juvenile justice system still faces urgent challenges such as:

  • Racial and ethnic disparities are getting worse. Whereas Black youth nationwide were confined at four times the rate of white youth in 2001, by 2017 the Black rate of confinement had grown to 4.5 times the rate for white youth.23
  • The United States locks up more young people than other countries do. According to the 2019 United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, the U.S. youth confinement rate was four times higher than Canada and Mexico; 10 times higher than central and eastern Europe; and 12 times higher than western Europe.24
  • Correctional confinement facilities remain dangerous and problematic, rather than rehabilitative. Since 2000, systemic or recurring maltreatment of confined youth had been documented in the juvenile corrections facilities of 29 states plus the District of Columbia.
  • Juvenile probation, the most common response to delinquency, often does not operate according to best practice. Roughly 400,000 young people per year are placed on some form of juvenile probation. Yet research finds that probation is ineffective in reversing delinquent behavior and has especially poor results with youth at low risk of re-arrest. Many common practices in probation are problematic or counterproductive.
  • Far too many U.S. youth are arrested and referred to court, and far too few of those youth are diverted from court following arrest or referral. Also, there is far too little investment in effective community-driven diversion interventions to assist youth who are suffering with trauma, family crises and serious behavioral health challenges and to prevent their slide into serious delinquency.

Additional resources on juvenile justice


1. Hockenberry, S., & Puzzanchera, C. (2020). Juvenile court statistics 2018. Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice. Retrieved from https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh176/files/media/document/juvenile-court-statistics-2018.pdf
2. Sickmund, M., Sladky, A., & Kang, W. (2020). Easy access to juvenile court statistics: 1985–2018. Retrieved from www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezajcs/
3. Sickmund, M., Sladky, T.J., Kang, W., & Puzzanchera, C. (2019). Easy access to the census of juveniles in residential placement. Retrieved from www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezacjrp/
4. Data from National Youth Survey analyzed by Hawkins, D., Smith, B., & Catalano, R. (2002). Delinquent behavior. Pediatrics in Review (23)11: 382–392. And, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2019). The promise of adolescence: Realizing opportunity for all youth. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25388
5. Blad, E., & Harwin, A. (2017, January 24). Black students more likely to be arrested at school. Education Week. Retrieved from www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/01/25/black-students-more-likely-to-bearrested.html#graphics
6. Sickmund, M., Sladky, A., & Kang, W. (2020).
7. Petrosino A., Turpin-Petrosino C., & Guckenburg, S. (2010). Formal system processing of juveniles: Effects on delinquency. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.4073/csr.2010.1
8. Wilson, H. A., & Hoge, R. D. (2013). The effect of youth diversion programs on recidivism: A meta-analytic review. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 40(5), 497–518. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854812451089
9. Zane, S. N., Welsh, B. C., & Mears, D. P. (2016). Juvenile transfer and the specific deterrence hypothesis: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Criminology and Public Policy, 15(3), 901–925. https://www.doi.org/10.1111/1745-9133.12222
10. Mulvey, E. P., & Schubert, C. A. (2012, December). Transfer of juveniles to adult court: Effects of a broad policy in one court. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh176/files/pubs/232932.pdf
11. Jordan, K. L. (2012) Juvenile transfer and recidivism: A propensity score matching approach. Journal of Crime and Justice, 35(1), 53–67, https://www.doi.org/10.1080/0735648X.2011.632133
12. Hahn, R., McGowan, A., Liberman, A., Crosby, A., Fullilove, M., Johnson, R., … & Lowy, J. (2007). Effects on violence of laws and policies facilitating the transfer of youth from the juvenile to the adult justice system: A report on recommendations of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Recommendations and Reports, 56(9), 1–11. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5609a1.htm
13. National Criminal Justice Information and Statistics Service. (1979). Children in custody: A report on the juvenile detention and correctional facility census of 1975 Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.
14. Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency of the U.S. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary, 95th Cong. 2 (1977). Statement of William J. Anderson, Deputy Director, General Government Division General Accounting Office. Retrieved from www.gao.gov/assets/100/98556.pdf
15. Sickmund, M., Sladky, A., & Kang, W. (2020).
16. Leiber, M. J., & Peck, J. H. (2013). Race in juvenile justice and sentencing policy: An overview of research and policy recommendations. Law & Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice, 31(2). Retrieved from http://scholarship.law.umn.edu/lawineq/vol31/iss2/2
17. Lipsey, M. W., Howell, J. C., Kelly, M. R., Chapman, G., & Carver, D. (2010). Improving the effectiveness of juvenile justice programs: A new perspective on evidence-based practice. Washington, DC: Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University.
18. Seigle, E., Walsh, N., & Weber, J. (2014) Core principles for reducing recidivism and improving other outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system. New York, NY: Council of State Governments Justice Center. Retrieved from https://csgjusticecenter.org/publications/juvenile-justice-white-paper
19. Buffington, K., Dierkhising, C. B., & Marsh, S. C. (2010). Ten things every juvenile court judge should know about trauma and delinquency. Reno, NV: National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Retrieved from www.ncjfcj.org/publications/ten-things-every-juvenile-court-judge-should-know-about-trauma-and-delinquency
20. Durnan, J., Olsen, R., Harvell, S. (2018). State-led juvenile justice systems improvement: Implementation progress and early outcomes. Washington, DC: Urban Institute. Retrieved from www.urban.org/research/publication/state-led-juvenile-justice-systems-improvement
21. The National Juvenile Justice Network & the Texas Public Policy Foundation. (2013). The comeback states: Reducing juvenile incarceration in the United States. Retrieved from www.njjn.org/uploads/digital-library/Comeback-States-Report_FINAL.pdf
22. Puzzanchera, C., Hockenberry, S., Sladky, T. J., & Kang, W. (2020). Juvenile residential facility census databook. Retrieved from www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/jrfcdb/
23. Sickmund, M., Sladky, T. J., Kang, W., & Puzzanchera, C. (2019).
24. Nowak, M. (2019). The United Nations global study of children deprived of liberty. Geneva: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Retrieved from www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CRC/StudyChildrenDeprivedLiberty/Pages/Index.aspx

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