Does Juvenile Detention Work?

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Juvenile detention is the practice of confining young people — usually those suspected of committing a crime — for a temporary amount of time, and it presents the United States’ justice system — at the state, federal and community levels — with more than a small share of difficulties. One of the most salient trouble spots is the charge that juvenile detention may actually further criminalize young people instead of rehabilitating them.

For many of the people working within the current system of juvenile detention, the problem of how to correct the process and practice of detaining youth is a very uneasy one, especially because juvenile delinquency does sometimes pose a threat to community safety, but recent data suggests that detention actually makes things worse for the young person caught up within its grasp. Instead of scaring a loitering or vandalizing youth “straight,” detaining that youth actually seems to push him or her further down the path of crime. If juvenile detention negatively affects the youth it purports to help by criminalizing them further, doesn’t that also increase the threat to community safety instead of alleviating it? If juvenile detention creates more criminals that it deters, what are the alternatives?

Why Detention Happens

The primary culprit in failed juvenile detention practices is that many young people are inappropriately detained, and the detention that they undergo can have disastrous effects on their development, mental health and future legal and educational outcomes. Over half of all youth detained are charged with minor offenses, and of these, minority youth are held in vastly disproportionate amounts. The most common causes of inappropriate detention are:

  • Bail decisions by judges — and parents. When judges determine bail for anyone — regardless of age — they do so according to flight risk and the danger the individual poses to others or themselves. Sometimes, judges set bail too high for a juvenile’s parents to afford, which means the youth must remain in locked custody. Occasionally — even if bail is affordable — parents and guardians misguidedly refuse to take a young person in hopes of teaching the child a lesson.
  • No one can find an appropriate adult to release the young person to. In many cases, children and youth would not be detained if a parent or guardian could simply come and get them from the police station. Whether inflexible employment, substance abuse or transportation issues, some youth simply do not have a parent or guardian who can come and get them at any point during the day. This unavailability of a responsible adult leads to inappropriate detention.

Why Detention Hurts

Studies show that juvenile detention has many negative consequences for the youth who experience it. From a decreasing likelihood that they will graduate high school to an increased likelihood that they will undergo future incarceration, the data shows that juvenile detention has deleterious effects on young people. Many detainees have mental health needs that are not being addressed, and a trip through juvenile detention not only fails to address these needs, but it can actually exacerbate them. Whether or not a youth is detained can also greatly affect the outcome of that youth’s case. Studies have shown that with youths who are brought to trial for the same offenses, those who were detained had worse outcomes and harsher sentences than those who posted bail and spent no time in detention. There is also the risk of behavior contagion, where troubled kids are affected by other troubled kids in the juvenile detention system, which leads to worse behavior.

Does Juvenile Detention Work

What Can Be Done

The most important aspect of reform is to reduce juvenile detention that is inappropriate or needless. The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) is a public-private cooperative that is being implemented across the country to address reform. JDAI’s goal is to ensure that incarceration — or locked detention — is used only when it is absolutely necessary. JDAI employs a number of strategies, including, but not limited to:

  • Collaboration between governmental systems like courts, police, schools, mental health counselors and more
  • Alternatives to detention and confinement through community services and programs
  • Expedited case processing so that youths — if they are on locked detention—won’t be detained for excessive lengths of time
  • Improved confinement conditions to keep youths safe and in humane and dignified conditions

Juvenile detention comes at great cost to individuals and communities, making it a prime candidate for reform. Thanks to initiatives like JDAI, troubled youth will hopefully have better options — even when they have brushes with the law that must be taken seriously. From eliminating inappropriate confinement to expediting the judicial process, protecting young people from the negative effects of detention is finally receiving much-needed attention.

About the Author: Christy Lane is a contributing blogger who finished her master’s degree in forensic psychology.