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

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