Exploring the Dangers of Youth Confinement in the United States


Adolescents in the United States are incarcerated at a higher rate than their counterparts in other parts of the world. The juvenile justice system has shifted from its initial purpose of rehabilitation to a more punitive approach. This article highlights the many problems associated with juvenile incarceration, such as disproportionate minority contact, mental health issues, and poor educational services. Restorative justice is emphasized as an appropriate guiding philosophy for the American juvenile justice system. This article concludes with practical recommended community-based alternatives to incarceration.

Keywords: juvenile justice, incarceration, mental health, education, community-based alternatives


            The United States is the only country in the world that incarcerates over 70,000 juveniles in detention centers (Munyo, 2015). According to Sawyer (2019), over 48,000 youth are confined in juvenile and adult correctional facilities on any given day in the United States. Secure detention became the preferred method of controlling delinquent youth during the get-tough movement of the 1980s to the 1990s (van Wormer & Campbell, 2016). However, the secure detention of juveniles remains a serious issue today. The high rate at which children are incarcerated is troubling since the juvenile justice system was created to treat adolescents differently than adults. The juvenile justice system was designed to recognize adolescents’ unique needs and immature status and emphasize rehabilitation over punishment (Munyo, 2015). The incarceration of juveniles is also problematic because it disrupts educational programming, separates minors from their families, and exposes youth to additional trauma and violence (Garrison, 2017). In addition, the use of incarceration has been linked to an increased recidivism likelihood (van Wormer & Campbell, 2016; Ryan et al., 2014). Furthermore, confinement is costly and detrimental to juveniles, which, in some cases, affects their mental health (Balsamo & Poncin, 2016). Despite the assumption that most mental health professionals would favor a rehabilitative approach toward juvenile delinquents, Balsamo and Poncin (2016) asserted that this principle is not always practiced.

Despite efforts over the past two decades for the country to move away from incarceration to community-based alternatives, the United States still incarcerates juveniles at a higher rate than any other country in the world (Sattler, 2017). There were 45,567 juveniles being held in placement facilities nationally in 2015 (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2017). That same year, Pennsylvania’s residential placement rate was 228 per 100,000 juveniles (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2017). The use of restorative justice interventions like those utilized in Pennsylvania was found to be more effective than traditional court processes (Verrecchia & Hutzell, 2014). Nonetheless, juvenile court judges continue to struggle to offer care and rehabilitation versus control and punishment when dealing with juvenile delinquents (Elwyn et al., 2017).

History of the American Juvenile Justice System

In the United States, the juvenile justice system traces its roots to 1899, when Cook County, Illinois, established the first juvenile court (Bowman, 2018). The newly created court mandated specific provisions when dealing with troubled children. These provisions included: 1) the state could act as parens patriae or guardian of the child; 2) a tribunal would hear cases of children under sixteen years old; 3) the court would use informal and noncriminal procedures to facilitate remedial, preventative, and nonpunitive justice; and 4) judges would provide parent-like care and discipline to children (Pierce, 2017). According to Bowman (2018), the establishment of the first juvenile court in Cook County, Illinois, paved the way for other agencies across the country to establish the American juvenile justice system. Pierce (2017) described the new juvenile court as well-received since almost every state had created similar juvenile court systems within twenty-five years following the first such court in Cook County, Illinois.

Creating a separate court system for adolescents was based on the idea that children experienced unique issues and had individual needs (Bowman, 2018). For instance, Migden (2017) articulated that scientists now believe that the brain is not fully developed until the early to mid-twenties. Furthermore, the brain’s frontal lobes, which facilitate high-level reasoning and decision making, do not develop fully until the mid-twenties. Hence, Migden argued that young adults ages 18 to 24 are more like juveniles than adults. Based on adolescents’ uniqueness, the law should protect and treat children differently from adults (Pierce, 2017). Researchers have agreed that the fundamental theory behind separating juvenile offenders from adults was to provide a nonpunitive approach to delinquency that emphasized care and direction (Bowman, 2018; Howell et al., 2017; Pierce, 2017). In addition, the juvenile justice system recognized that since children were different from adults, they were less blameworthy and had a higher propensity to change (Migden, 2017). Hence, rehabilitation was a key focus when developing the juvenile justice system.

The unique, youth-centered approach to the juvenile justice system established specific rules: cases were to be held in an exclusive, separate courtroom with a less formal summary proceeding; children and adults were not to be confined in the same institutions; children under 12 were not to be committed to a jail or police station; and probation officers – not paid or affiliated with the state – would investigate juvenile cases (Bowman, 2018). Bowman observed that judges had significant discretion to determine the best way to rehabilitate these adolescents. However, having a juvenile justice system for juveniles also meant that these young offenders were not afforded the same due process rights as adult offenders. Bowman argued that since the juvenile justice system emphasized an informal process, youth offenders were not entitled to due process rights. It was not until 1967 when the Supreme Court heard In re Gault’s case that this informal and unregulated approach ended (Pierce, 2017). Before the court’s judgment of In re Gault, juvenile courts were producing informal and inconsistent outcomes, a trend that has been criticized (Bowman, 2018).

Roper v. Simmons (2005) and Graham v. Florida (2010) are two precedent cases that increased the formality of the juvenile court, which began to mirror the formality of the adult criminal court (Bowman, 2018). Serious and violent offending by adolescents increased significantly by the late 1980s (Blackburn, 2019). The get-tough era of the 1980s and the 1990s saw an increase in the severity of punishment for first-time and repeat criminal offenders (Schaefer & Uggen, 2016). Juvenile offenders were no exception to increased punitive measures during this era. During this period, researchers outside of the field of juvenile justice began labeling juveniles as super-predators (Howell et al., 2017).  According to Blackburn (2019), most states responded by curtailing the juvenile court’s jurisdiction over serious crimes and transferring youth offenders into adult courts and adult prisons.

In Los Angeles, California, conservatives received support from liberals to demand a more punitive system for juvenile offenders during the 1970s (Felker-Kantor, 2018). As a result, the city began shifting to a more punitive approach while still maintaining the juvenile justice system’s rehabilitative side. In the 1990s, young offenders were being tried as adults and subjected to mandatory minimum sentences (Bowman, 2018). As a result, more punitive policies started to form a part of the juvenile justice system despite its initial emphasis on decision-making in children’s best interest (Schaefer & Uggen, 2016). Felker-Kantor (2018) contended that these punitive measures resulted in youth offenders experiencing higher incarceration and more extended time than ever before.

Disproportionate Minority Contact

There is an overrepresentation of racial minorities in juvenile and adult criminal justice systems in the United States. The issue of disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in the juvenile justice system has been recognized as a national priority since the 1980s by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) (Mallet, 2018). According to Mallet (2018), this issue is not a new phenomenon as the racial and ethnic disparity in the juvenile justice system extends to the eighteenth century. However, he asserts that the efforts have failed to bring about any meaningful change over the past few decades. While juvenile offenders of color are disproportionately represented at all stages of the juvenile justice process, the further they penetrate the system, the more likely racial and ethnic disparities will be found (Mallet, 2018). For example, compared to their White counterparts, Black youth are six times more likely to be arrested, while Hispanics are three times likely to be arrested (Mallet, 2018).

The latest statistics from the OJJDP indicate that White youth accounted for 63% of juvenile arrests in 2019, followed by Black youth at 34%, American Indian at 2%, and Asian at 1% (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention [OJJDP], 2019a). The arrest rate among Black youth is disproportionate since they generally make up 15-16% of the adolescent population (Mallet, 2018). Hence, in terms of arrests per 100,000 persons ages 10-17, Black youth had the highest rate of arrests among all youth in 2019. The rates of arrests by race were: Black 4,249.5, American Indian 2,558.3, White 1,748.3, and Asian 454.7 (OJJDP, 2019b). In addition, black youth had a higher percentage of arrests for certain offenses, such as murder 50%, robbery 62%, motor vehicle theft 50%, embezzlement 50%, stolen property (buying, receiving, possessing) 62%, and prostitution and commercialized vice 51% (OJJDP, 2019a). Conversely, White youth accounted for a higher percentage of arrests for the remaining offenses. These offenses include, but were not limited to, aggravated assault 56%, burglary 57%, arson 69%, simple assault 59%, forgery and counterfeiting 62%, vandalism 70%, weapons (carrying, possessing, etc.) 56%, drug abuse violation 75%, gambling 58%, offenses against the family and children 67%, driving under the influence 89%, liquor laws 86%, drunkenness 77%, and vagrancy 77% (OJJDP, 2019a).

The research into DMC was traditionally limited to the context of confinement. However, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 2002 extended this concept to include all contacts with the juvenile justice system (Majumdar, 2017). In his study of DMC in Alabama, Majumdar (2017) found that black youth were 33% more likely to be subjected to predisposition detention than their white counterparts. Similarly, he found that blacks were 19% more likely to have a formal petition filed against them and 48% more likely to be adjudicated to a secured residential facility or have their cases transferred to a criminal court. While the United States’ youth population only consisted of 21% minority in 2011, more than 36% of the juvenile delinquency cases in the country involved Black, Asian, Native Pacific Islander, and American Indian youth (Donnelly, 2017).

The goal of the DMC mandate is to reduce the number of minorities in the juvenile justice system. The penalty faced by states that fail to make “good faith” efforts to correct racial disparities in the juvenile system is a 20% cut in federal aid and reallocation of the remaining money to address compliance standards (Donnelly, 2017). When viewing DMC specifically in Pennsylvania, where 80% of youth ages 10 – 17 identify as White, approximately 36% of juvenile court referrals, and 42% of dispositions to out-of-home placement involve Blacks and Hispanics (Donnelly, 2017). However, Pennsylvania had been committed to addressing the DMC mandate. The state selected five of the 67 counties as disproportionate minority contact sites. The measures included revised practices at the arrest and court stage and revised policies regarding detention, out-of-home placements, and confinement (Donnelly, 2017).

The results of Donnelly’s study show that the interventions in Pennsylvania have reduced the number of Black and Hispanic youth being processed at all four points of the state’s juvenile justice system. While Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice officials are committed to being compliant with the DMC mandate, which has seen some successes, other states have not implemented the DMC mandate at the same speed and rigor as Pennsylvania (Donnelly, 2017). Some of the causes of disproportionate minority contact include “institutional racism, selective enforcement of delinquent behaviour, indirect effects of poverty, differential opportunities for treatment or rehabilitation programs, and unequal access to effective legal counsel” (Mallet, 2018, p. 244). Today, DMC continues to be an issue, and there are questions as to whether the juvenile courts can effectively address this problem.

Juvenile Justice and Mental Health

            The mental health status of juveniles involved in the justice system is an issue that must be considered when exploring alternatives to incarceration. Many youths enter the juvenile justice system with behavioral and mental health needs. However, White (2019) asserts that much of the research on justice-involved youth’s mental health problems has focused primarily on the service needs and not on whether they received those services. The relationship between health and juvenile incarceration is complex (Barnert et al., 2016). Mental health is one of the health services needs for juveniles in the justice system. Barnert and colleagues posited that two-thirds of incarcerated boys and three-quarters of incarcerated girls meet the criteria for at least one psychiatric diagnosis. They found that severe mental health disorders which require immediate treatment were present in approximately 27% of incarcerated youth.

The prevalence of mental health issues in justice-involved youth questions whether mental health services are being met. There are indications that children and adolescents who experience behavioral and mental health problems are undertreated and have high rates of unmet service needs (White, 2019). Moreover, White (2019) found that being economically disadvantaged is the primary reason for unmet service needs. She also found that whites were more likely than minorities to receive mental health treatment and that minorities had limited opportunities to access mental health services. The mental health needs of youth may also be linked to racial disparity in the juvenile justice system. For instance, White (2019) posited that white youth were more likely to be referred to the mental health system, while minorities were more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system.

The prevalence of mental health disorders in non-residential adjudicated youth is approximately 50%, while the percentage for youth in residential juvenile treatment facilities is an estimated 65% to 70% (Whitley & Rozel, 2016). Regardless of the type of setting in which a youth encounters the juvenile justice system, it is vital that promptly on arrival, they are carefully and thoroughly screened and assessed by a mental health professional (Soulier & McBride, 2016). Robst (2017) posited that recidivism among youth might be reduced if they are prompted provided with mental health treatment after their arrest. However, some challenges interfere with the quality of care of detained youth. These challenges include conflicts with strict daily schedules and the availability of care staff to escort youth to the clinic; lack of medical records and parents’ absence to provide consent; and youth being reluctant to cooperate with health care staff (Barnert et al., 2016).

Educational Services in Juvenile Justice

The educational attainment of juvenile delinquents and their access to education in juvenile facilities are essential to consider when exploring juvenile justice reforms. According to the National Juvenile Justice Network (2016), an estimated 70% of juvenile offenders have learning disabilities. This claim has been corroborated by Miller (2019), who reported that between 30-70% of students in the juvenile justice system have a learning disability. While most confined adolescents are high school age, they tend to function at the middle school level and have very few high school credits (Zimring & Tanenhaus, 2014).  Furthermore, the National Juvenile Justice Network (2016) posited that many adjudicated youth’s academic achievement levels rarely exceed the elementary level. They also contend that 66% do not return to school postrelease from juvenile facilities. The National Juvenile Justice Network (2016) outlined the following barriers to juvenile education completion:

  • substandard education while incarcerated,
  • failure of many correctional educational facilities to use curricula aligned with state standards, which can result in credits not transferring or being accepted by the home school district,
  • significant delays in the transfer of youth’s educational records and credits from the correctional educational facility to their community school upon release; and
  • barriers some schools and states have enacted to prevent youth from re-enrolling in school. (p. 1)

Based on national data, approximately 80% of crimes are committed by people who dropped out of school, and 41% of state and federal adult inmates do not possess a high school diploma (Cavendish, 2014). In addition, an approximated 70% to 85% of juveniles do not complete their high school diploma or general educational development (GED) diploma while being confined or postrelease (Cavendish, 2014). Several indications highlight the lack of quality education in juvenile justice detention and commitment facilities (National Juvenile Justice Network, 2016; Jones, 2014; Koyama, 2012). Some of the issues in juvenile justice education include a lack of qualified teachers (Jones, 2014), substandard curricula that do not align with state standards (National Juvenile Justice Network, 2016), and a lack of adequate classroom space and professional expertise in education (Koyama, 2012).

Restorative Justice

            Detention is considered the most restrictive and punitive response to youth offending. Hence, proposing alternatives to youth confinement should be done within a context that emphasizes less punitive measures. Restorative justice is one such context. It is a framework that emphasizes the utilization of mediation, negotiation, and victim empowerment in repairing the harm done to victims and their communities (Rodriguez, 2007). It is believed that this framework provides crime and delinquency with a unique opportunity to foster relationships and collaboratively reach an agreement. Restorative justice as a practice and a theory in criminal justice emerged in parts of the world during the 1970s to 1980s (Díaz Gude & Navarro Papic, 2018). The restorative justice goal was to transform and replace the retribution-dominant criminal justice systems existing in the western world. The 1990 influential publication Changing Lenses by Howard Zehr articulates the restorative justice theory and expands it to scholars beyond North America (Robinson & Hudson, 2016).

In explaining the restorative justice theory, Zehr (1990) first defined crime and justice. He asserted that it is an injury and violation of people and relationships, and justice was designed to focus on repairing harm and making things right. He further contended that the biblical approach to justice shows that restorative justice must be transformative justice. In the context of restorative justice, the repair must go beyond returning the situation and people to their original state. Zehr (1990) contended that justice would repair the harm done and promote healing if the crime is an injury. The restorative justice philosophy has become a more promising approach when responding to juvenile delinquency and crime in recent years. The use of restorative justice programming has increased in the United States and other countries when addressing both low-level and, in some cases, severe juvenile delinquency (Bouffard et al., 2017).

Bouffard, Cooper, and Bergseth (2017) assert that restorative justice interventions tend to utilize victim-offender mediation (VOM), family group conferencing (FGC), or circle sentencing in facilitating a direct line of communication between the victim and the offender. Three principles guide the restorative justice philosophy: accountability, competency development, and community protection (Blackburn, 2019). Restorative justice’s effectiveness is generally supported by existing research, particularly for being more effective than traditional court processing for certain juvenile offenders (Bouffard et al., 2017). Despite indications of success, Saulnier and Sivasubramaniam (2015) contend that practitioners must be cautious in stating that heightened participant satisfaction and recidivism reduction are inherently more likely with restorative justice versus court-based procedure. These authors also believe that more research is needed to understand restorative justice’s application, outcomes, and mechanisms.

Community-Based Alternatives

            The Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) launch in 1992 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation was an indication of the overreliance on detention in the United States in the 1990s. The goals of JDAI were to eliminate the unnecessary and inappropriate use of secure juvenile detention and reduce racial disparities (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2017). Other purposes include increasing overall public safety and saving taxpayers money (Maggard, 2015). Over the years, the Annie E. Casey foundation broadened its focus to reduce juvenile incarceration. Whereas juvenile detention involves the temporary predisposition confinement of youth, incarceration refers to youth’s long-term confinement for more than 90 days (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2013).

The use of juvenile detention centers can create negative educational and behavioral consequences (Garland et al., 2016). Similarly, the use of juvenile correctional facilities has been described as dangerous, ineffective, unnecessary, obsolete, wasteful, and inadequate (Mendel, 2011). The alternatives to incarceration include community-based programs that keep youth in their communities and away from out-of-home placements. These alternatives include diversion programs, home supervision, community supervision, and family therapy. In a formal context, diversion programs involve a group of decision-makers who move juvenile cases away from the traditional court process to programs to provide services and require the youth to meet specific objectives (Schlesinger, 2018). Informal diversion, on the other hand, is discretionary and requires nothing future of the youth. For instance, a police officer may warn a juvenile, a probation officer may not report a violation, a prosecutor may decide not to prosecute, or a judge may dismiss a case. While diversion programs aim to keep juveniles away from the formal court process, Schlesinger (2018) posited that these programs also decrease inequity in the juvenile justice system.

Among the community supervision alternatives is the evening reporting center (ERC). While the primary goal of ERCs is to reduce the number of youths exposed to confinement, other purposes include “increasing appearances at court, enhancing public safety, and reducing recidivism” (Garland et al., 2016, p. 166). The ERCs function as structured, intensive supervision for youth to attend during high-crime hours while staying home at night. Intensive supervision probation (ISP) is a type of home supervision for juveniles who are most likely to violate probation, have a history of violence, and engage in drug or gang activities (Alarid & Rangel, 2018).  The ISP is a midpoint between regular probation and residential placement as it involves curfew, drug tests, and home visits.

The multidimensional family therapy (MDFT) and the multidimensional treatment foster care (MTFC) are two well-established family therapy options for treating juveniles with substance abuse and behavioral problems (van der Pol et al., 2018; van der Pol et al., 2017; Underwood & Washington, 2017). Instead of confining youth to residential placement facilities, the MDFT can be utilized instead. The MDFT is an effective, manualized, evidence-based option for treating adolescents with substance abuse and anti-social behaviors (van der Pol et al., 2017). The MTFC, like the MDFT, is an alternative to residential treatment for youth with chronic emotional and behavioral disorders. Participants of the MTFC are assigned to a trained, local, and supervised family for six to nine months. Throughout this period, family therapy is also conducted (Underwood & Washington, 2017).


The number of juveniles incarcerated in the United States is not seen anywhere else in the world. Despite the many issues associated with adolescents’ incarceration and efforts to emphasize community-based alternatives, youth incarceration rates remain unacceptably high. The American juvenile justice system has, over the years, drifted from its initial emphasis on providing rehabilitation and care instead of punishment. As a result, adolescents of racial and ethnic minority groups continue to be disproportionately overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. The DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has made a genuine effort to reduce such disparity in the juvenile justice system. However, only a few states, notably Pennsylvania, have responded consistently and speedily to address this issue. In addition to struggling with mental health, trauma, and substance use issues, youth in juvenile correctional facilities are underserved educationally. Therefore, there is a need to emphasize community-based alternatives to juvenile incarceration, such as diversion programs, home supervision, community supervision, and family therapy.



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Dr. Deneil Christian is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of the Virgin Islands. He earned a doctorate in criminal justice from Liberty University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from Lamar University, a master’s degree in business administration from Don Bosco University, India, and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Ashworth College. Dr. Christian’s research interests include the academic achievement of juvenile offenders, alternatives to juvenile incarceration, and mental health issues in the juvenile justice system.

Categories: Corrections, Criminal Justice