Too Many Locked Doors: The scope of youth confinement is vastly understated

Despite states’ and counties’ regular reliance on detention when responding to misbehaviors and offenses committed by youth, the scope and impact of youth incarceration in the United States is not fully understood and traditional counts understate its size.

Related to: Youth Justice, Racial Justice

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Executive Summary

The United States incarcerates an alarming number of children and adolescents every year. Disproportionately, they are youth of color.

Given the short- and long-term damages stemming from youth out of home placement, it is vital to understand its true scope. In 2019, there were more than 240,000 instances of a young person detained, committed, or both in the juvenile justice system. However, youth incarceration is typically measured via a one-day count taken in late October. This metric vastly understates its footprint: at least 80% of incarcerated youth are excluded from the one-day count.

This undercount is most prevalent for detained youth, all of whom have been arrested but have yet to face a court hearing. The following are examples of the systemic underrepresentation of detained youth in the one-day count:

  • Thirty-one youths charged with drug offenses are detained for each one measured in the one-day count.
  • Twenty-five youths charged with public order offenses are detained for each one measured in the one-day count.
  • Eighteen youths charged with property offenses are detained for each one measured in the one-day count.
  • Eleven youths charged with person offenses are detained for each one measured in the one-day count.

The variances in commitment are smaller but still noteworthy: more than three youth are committed each calendar year for each youth appearing in the one-day count.

The decade-long drop in detention and commitment masks how common detention remains for youth in conflict with the law. Hundreds of thousands of youth are referred to juvenile courts annually; roughly one-quarter of the time, they are detained. That proportion has crept upward over a decade in which arrests have declined dramatically.

Data on youth detentions and commitment reveal sharp racial and ethnic disparities. Youth of color encounter police more often than their white peers and are disproportionately arrested despite modest differences in behavior that cannot explain the extent of arrest disparities. Disparities in incarceration start with arrests but grow at each point of contact along the justice system continuum. In roughly one-quarter of delinquency cases throughout the decade, a youth was detained pre-adjudication. When youth of color are arrested, they are more likely to be detained than their white peers.

Likelihood of detention by race and ethnicity, 2019

  • White youth 20%
  • Latinx youth 32%
  • Black youth 29%
  • Asian/NHPI youth 26%
  • Tribal youth 25%

Percentages reflect the proportion of all referrals, by group, that started with a detention.

This report calculates detention and commitment frequencies by race and ethnicity, providing a fresh view of the extent of placement disparities. That youth of color are more likely to be held in placement than their white peers is well established. The report reveals how, among those youth referred to court, detention grew even more common for Black, Latinx, and Asian/Pacific Islander youth while holding steady for white and Tribal youth. On the other hand, juvenile courts committed delinquent youth of all races and ethnicities less often than at the start of the decade. Overall, the system shrank, but its unfairness increased.

As large as the system appears in the popular data, the use of confinement in America’s juvenile justice system is far larger than generally understood. A one-day count cannot accurately reflect the wide and deep footprint of youth incarceration.

It’s time for a better view.

Policy Recommendations

  1. Legislate limitations on incarceration for youth, particularly detention.
    Ending the detention of thousands of young people, often held for a handful of days, will require intervention by state legislatures to limit detention only to circumstances where public safety is at risk.
  2. Focus reforms on eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in placement decisions.
    Reformers must keep racial and ethnic data front and center as they limit the use of detention and commitment. Racial impact statements are a useful tool to evaluate how legislative initiatives will impact various demographics Advancing effective policy change demands that race- and ethnicity-centered solutions are explicit.
  3. Redirect public expenditures toward effective solutions.
    State budgets for departments of juvenile justice lean heavily toward the maintenance of commitment facilities despite the fact that they serve so few of the youth referred to courts. There is little evidence that the savings from closing facilities has been invested in services and supports that benefit impacted youth and families. Closing facilities should not be viewed as a cost-savings, it should be viewed as an opportunity to spend more wisely.
  4. Improve the available data.
    The Juvenile Court Statistics data compiled by the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) under a grant from the Department of Justice can be improved with state-by-state data and the addition of status offenses and violations of probation.

Understanding the scope of youth incarceration demands a full picture of how many justice-involved youths are removed from their homes — detained, committed, jailed and imprisoned — in the course of a year. Data-based discussions on youth incarceration should emphasize annual admissions and not the one-day count that is also reported by NCJJ. The dangers of placement and incarceration accrue to anyone who is held in custody. Advocates and policymakers alike should emphasize annual totals and rates.

Click here to download the full report.

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About the Author

  • Joshua Rovner

    Director of Youth Justice

    Joshua Rovner manages a portfolio of juvenile justice issues for The Sentencing Project, including juveniles sentenced to life without parole, the transfer of juveniles into the adult criminal justice system, and racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice.

    Read more about Joshua

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