Approximately 2.1 million young people under the age of 18 are arrested each year in the United States. While boys tend to be arrested and detained more often than girls for delinquent offenses, girls are the fastest growing population entering the juvenile justice system. Although juvenile detention facilities are explicitly meant to be rehabilitative, many youth in juvenile detention are subject to facility overcrowding, physical and sexual violence, and an increased risk of suicide and death. Many juveniles report that staff in detention facilities use punishment or unnecessary force without cause. For example, the usage of restraints, like pepper spray or a restraint chair, and the use of isolation has been common in youth confinement centers. Additionally, youth report that long traveling distances, or long distance calling charges prevent them from interacting with their families.

Like their adult counterparts, incarcerated youth often face significant health challenges and come from communities with limited educational opportunities. Children in the criminal justice system are three to seven times more likely to qualify for special education courses than those not in the system. Over half of the students in the system are below the grade level equivalent for their age, and often times many are illiterate. Moreover, 65-70% of these youth have a mental health disorder, and most of these youth have more than one; fewer than 10% of youth, however, with serious mental illness get sufficient treatment for it.

Youth of color are also over-represented in the justice system compared to their white peers. While African American youth make up 16% of youth in the United States, they make up 30% of juvenile court referrals, 38% of youth in residential placement, and 58% of youth in adult prison. Youth of color have been the main victims of the “school-to-prison pipeline.” For example, 40% of students expelled from schools are black, which significantly increases their likelihood of being involved in the juvenile criminal system in the following year. Students of color face stricter discipline and are more likely to be pushed out of schools than white students. Moreover, schools serving mostly students of color tend to function more like secure facilities, with metal detectors, security guards, and most notably, zero-tolerance policies. Data shows that 70% of students involved in “in-school” arrests are Black or Latino, and that Black students are suspended 3.5 times more than their White counterparts.

While most youth serve their sentences in a juvenile facility, an estimated 250,000 youth, 18 years old and younger, are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults every year. About 10,000 youth are detained or incarcerated in adult jails or prisons on any given day. Fourteen states have no minimum age for trying children as adults, while some states have a minimum age between 10 and 13 years old. As a result, children as young as eight years old have been tried as a adults, and children as young as thirteen years old have been tried as adults and sentenced to life in prison. Approximately 3,000 children are in adult prisons with life sentences without the possibility of parole. In May 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that life-without-parole sentences for youth are unconstitutional. They noted that youth are still undergoing brain development, thus they have a “diminished culpability, and a heightened capacity for change.” Previous sentences are being altered to reflect the Court’s decision, potentially impacting up to 3,000 young people.

(Contributed by Adriana Vargas-Smith)


Erickson, C. D. (2012). Using systems of care to reduce incarceration of youth with serious mental illnessAmerican journal of community psychology, 49(3-4), 404-416.

Equal Justice Initiative. “Children in Prison.” (n.d.).

PBS. “Fact Sheet: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?” (n.d.).

National Juvenile Justice Network. “Keep Youth Out of Adult Courts, Jails, and Prisons.” (n.d.).

Center for Children’s Law and Policy. “Understanding the OJJDP Survey of Conditions of Confinement in Juvenile Facilities.” (n.d.).

Youth.gov. “Youth Involved with the Juvenile Justice System.” (n.d.).