Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Locking up Kids, and the Price we Pay.

By Julie GilbertsenPublished February 24, 2019

Most people are familiar with the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the word. What most do not know is that the U.S. also has the highest juvenile incarceration rate in the developed world. Research shows that locking up minors can have dire consequences, both on child development and on the economy.

On any given day in 2018, almost 53,000 of America’s youth were being held in juvenile facilities, and over 1 million juveniles are processed through juvenile detention centers each year. It is a widely known fact that America has the world’s most incarcerated adults, but many are unaware that America leads the developed world in the number of children held in juvenile facilities as well. One of the main reasons that these statistics are alarming is due to the fact that around 70 percent of these individuals committed non-violent crimes, or acts that are not even considered criminal offenses. There are a surprising amount of offenses that can land children in prison but not adults. One may assume that the criminal justice system would be more lenient toward minors due to developmental status and psychological maturity, and in some ways they are; however, the rate at which children and teenagers receive disciplinary punishment in the form of detainment it simply counterproductive and costly. This is a societal problem that has been largely swept under the rug, despite the detrimental effects these facilities have on thousands of children every year. In some states, community-based alternatives to juvenile detainment have proven to be much more successful and cost-effective.

Minors are sent to juvenile facilities in order to correct behavioral issues that cause them to be disruptive in society. Shoving a cohort of misbehaved teenagers into one facility, however, has not been proven to be successful. In fact, research has shown detaining youth can actually make them more likely to reoffend. According to the Justice Policy Institute, detained minors are more likely to be processed deeper into the system than minors who committed similar crimes, but were not detained. One evaluation of a facility in Wisconsin reported that 70 percent of youth returned to that detention within one year of release. Therefore, one can safely come to the conclusion that what is going on within juvenile detainment facilities is problematic, and probably not a healthy place for young people to reside. Thus, if the ultimate goal of juvenile detention is to correct and prevent future criminal behaviors, then the justice system should be in search of a feasible solution.

The low success rate in the juvenile justice system can be attributed to problems experienced within facilities, such as exacerbated conditions and behaviors, negative mental health affects, and sexual violence. Studies have found that when juveniles are grouped together in detainment facilities, they are at higher risk for substance abuse, school difficulties, delinquency, violence and adjustment difficulties. When parents ground their teenagers of misbehaving, the last thing they would do is put them in a confined area with all their misbehaved friends, so it seems incongruous to clump juvenile offenders all together in a  confined area. Another major issue experienced among detained juveniles is psychological troubles. The National Research Council of the National Academies argues that juveniles who are detained are more likely to experience setbacks in psychological and brain development. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, an average of 10 percent detained youths are sexually abused every year, and 80 percent of the abuse is by government officials and other staff within the system, which often has lasting psychological effects on victims.

The Justice Policy Institute has recommended various alternative programs that could substitute juvenile detention centers, and some have already been proven effective. One solution is making a shift to community-based options, so minors do not have to leave their towns and families. Proponents of this solution believe that youth convicted of minor or nonviolent offenses should not be held in juvenile facilities, and incarceration should be the absolute last resort. These programs would entail treatment and supervision that would allow youth to stay at home or close to home. One example of effective community-based programs are the Youth Based Advocacy Programs (YAP), a national nonprofit that serves high-risk youth in their communities. YAP found that 86 percent of the program participants remained arrest-free and 87 percent were still living in their community up to 12 months after completing the program. Aside from the positive behavioral outcomes, there are financial incentives to implementing community-based supervision programs as well, with costs typically ranging from $30 to $80 a day per youth, compared to an average of $274 per day that states pay to incarcerate youth. Given that community based supervision and multiple other alternatives have been proven effective, the justice system should be making strides to end the injustice cycle in which the juvenile detainment plays a main role.