Youth Incarceration in the United States

By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

December 14, 2021

Summary

An infographic from the Annie E. Casey Foundation presents positive and negative trends in youth incarceration between 1995 and 2019 and recommendations for more effective responses than incarceration when young people break the law. It is based on federal data, which is current through 2019 and the latest available.

Juvenile justice agencies have made enormous progress by reducing youth incarceration 70% between 1995 and 2019, reflecting the deep declines in juvenile arrests over the same period. However, some harmful practices remained stubbornly entrenched in 2019, such as an overreliance on incarceration once youth were referred to the juvenile justice system, especially for Black and Native American youth.

The infographic disaggregates data by race and ethnicity because the large reduction in the overall number of young people behind bars obscures a sobering reality: Black youth are 16 times as likely to be in custody as their Asian and Pacific Islander peers, four times as likely as white peers and three times as likely as Hispanic peers.

The side-by-side format of the infographic identifies trends to celebrate as well as areas of concern. It concludes by addressing those concerns with recommendations for more effective responses than incarceration when young people break the law.

Positive trends in youth incarceration

  • Youth confinement rates were down 70% from 1995 to 2019, closely tracking the drop in youth arrests.
  • Almost every state has reduced youth confinement.
  • Confinement rates declined for youth of all races and ethnicities.

Negative trends in youth incarceration

  • Young people arrested and referred to court faced the same odds of confinement in 2019 as they did in 2005: one in three.
  • Public systems still confined more youth for relatively minor offenses than for serious ones.
  • Black and Native American youth were far more likely to be confined than Asian and Pacific Islander, white and Hispanic youth.

The infographic doesn’t include youth incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system. On a typical day in 2018, as per the latest federal data, 4,100 youth under age 18 were held in adult jails and prisons.

Our Youth Incarceration Infographic From 2013

Download the previous version of this publication from February 26, 2013

Key Juvenile Incarceration Takeaway

Public agencies have made enormous progress by reducing youth incarceration

Public agencies have reduced youth incarceration by 70% between 1995 and 2019, reflecting the deep declines in juvenile arrests over the same period, according to recently released federal data, which is current through 2019 and the latest available. However, some harmful practices remained stubbornly entrenched in 2019, such as an overreliance on incarceration once youth were referred to the juvenile justice system, especially for Black and Native American youth.

An infographic based on federal data presents key positive and negative trends in youth incarceration over the last three decades. The side-by-side format identifies trends to celebrate as well as areas of concern. It concludes by addressing those concerns with recommendations for more effective responses than incarceration when young people break the law.

Findings & Youth Incarceration Statistics

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Youth Confinement Rates Were Down

Closely tracking with the drop of youth arrests, youth confinement rates were down 70% from 1995 to 2019.

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Likelihood of Confinement Unchanged

Young people arrested and referred to court faced the same odds of confinement in 2019 as they did in 2005: one in three.

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Reductions Nearly Everywhere

Almost every state has reduced youth confinement, except for Idaho and West Virginia. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia had declines of 50% or more.

Juvenile Incarceration Statements & Quotations