Safely Reducing Reliance on Juvenile Detention: A Report from the Field

Article excerpt

In the early 1990s, juvenile detention centers across the country were in crisis. Reliance on secure detention, as measured by average daily population, had increased dramatically (see Figure 1) and almost two-thirds of youths admitted to these facilities were entering places operating above their rated capacities (see Figure 2)(1). Conditions of Confinement: Juveniles Detention and Corrections Facilities, released in 1994 by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, described institutions in which basic safety and health standards were infrequently met, with predictable negative consequences for both youths and staff. A growing number of jurisdictions found themselves in courts, trying to limit their liability for holding juveniles under unconstitutional conditions, and an even greater number confronted the prospect of investing more taxpayer dollars in the construction, financing and operation of larger facilities. Given that detention is, in most places, a county government function, the prospect of increased spending on secure detention was even more daunting than it would be in a state-budget context.

This seemingly unbridled growth in detention use was upsetting for many reasons other than facility crowding, increased costs or the threat of litigation. According to The Dangers of Detention, a forthcoming Justice Policy Institute report, research has found that detained youths are more likely to be formally prosecuted, adjudicated and placed in institutions than those at liberty while their delinquency cases are processed. Furthermore, it turns out that detention is a stronger predictor of recidivism than more commonly acknowledged risk factors such as gang involvement, weapons possession or a dysfunctional family environment, the report indicates. It goes on to explain that youths who are detained continue to suffer the consequences of the experience well into adulthood; 15 years after being incarcerated in juvenile facilities, these youths will work less and at lower wages than peers who avoid confinement.

Many observers of the emerging crisis agreed that it was regrettable that youths were being held in crowded detention centers, but they argued that if youths are creating havoc in the community, crowding had to be tolerated for the sake of public safety. However, data analyses revealed that the detained youth population was hardly the stereotypical "super-predator" portrayed on the local news during the mid-1990s. Indeed, a snapshot (see Figure 3) revealed that only about one-third of detained youths were held for violent offenses, and many of those youths were charged with simple assaults, admittedly too common among adolescents, but hardly the type of gun-toting, gang-banging crimes that drive public safety concerns. In contrast, almost another third of detained youths were held for status offenses, violations of court orders related to such offenses, or technical violations of probation. These were youths who had frustrated or angered an adult, not juveniles whom adults were necessarily afraid of. A disturbingly rising and disproportionate percentage of these youngsters were minority juveniles, (2) a fact that perhaps contributed to relative indifference to solutions that could counteract these trends (see Figure 4).


Further analyses challenged the very notion that detention use was driven by juvenile crime. As Figure 5 shows, detention populations certainly have not tracked the national decade-long decrease in juvenile offending. What these statistics revealed was that the use of juvenile detention was largely driven by policy and practice within juvenile justice systems, not simply by levels of delinquency. (3) Unnecessarily broad criteria in most state statutes established legal contexts within which it was very difficult to challenge detention decisions. Moreover, court rules and "cultures" (e.g., the ease with which adjournments are granted) varied substantially and were key determinants of lengths of stay. …