Our juvenile justice system relies heavily on incarceration, an approach that wastes taxpayer dollars, tears youth and families apart, and perpetuates racial disparities—without improving public safety. Each year an estimated 1.7 million cases are referred to juvenile courts and 400,000 youngsters cycle through juvenile detention centers.
Nearly 100,000 girls and boys are confined to juvenile facilities on any given night in the United States. Juvenile justice systems routinely detain and incarcerate youth who pose little or no danger to public safety, despite research that community supervision and non-residential, evidence-based programs are more effective and vastly more cost-efficient.
The Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) has shown that jurisdictions can reduce reliance on detention without jeopardizing public safety. The core principles of JDAI are being replicated in more than 100 jurisdictions in the U.S. Cities like Albuquerque, Santa Cruz, Portland (Oregon), and Chicago have lowered their detention populations by 38 to 75 percent without any uptick in youth offenses.
Despite evidence of widespread rights violations in juvenile justice, the federal government has done little in recent years to expand or intensify its efforts to protect the safety and well-being of court-involved youth. The Associated Press reported 13,000 documented cases of abuse in juvenile institutions in the U.S. from 2004-07.
Youth of color are treated more harshly than white youth at every stage of the juvenile justice process, even when they present the same histories and are accused of the same crimes. African American youth, for instance, comprise 16 percent of the total youth detention population in the U.S. and 28 percent of all youth arrests. Yet 58 percent of juveniles admitted to adult prisons—where young people are more apt to commit suicide, be sexually assaulted, and suffer beatings—are African American.
Every year roughly 200,000 youth under age 18 are tried in adult courts. Studies show that youth tried in adult courts and punished in the adult corrections system go on to commit more subsequent crime–and more violent crime–than equivalent youth tried and punished in the juvenile system.
Any effort to address the severe problems in our juvenile justice system and to adopt policy reforms will depend to a great extent on the talent, training, and dedication of the frontline workers who work directly with youth. Approximately 300,000 men and women comprise the juvenile justice workforce; they earn $30,000 per year, on average.
States and localities typically lack the funds and technical know-how to reform their juvenile programs and practices, and have long looked to Washington DC for guidance. Since the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was passed in 1974, Congress has played a crucial role in setting minimum standards, conducting research, and providing funding to help improve juvenile systems. Since 2000, federal juvenile justice funding has declined by nearly 60 percent.
Photographs by Steve Liss. See his website for more information.