Juvenile delinquency* has potentially high stakes for both individuals and society as a whole. Delinquency is linked to higher crime rates in adulthood and other negative outcomes. Juvenile incarceration is associated with a greatly decreased likelihood of high school completion and a large increase in the likelihood of adult incarceration, as well as physical and mental health challenges in adulthood.
The juvenile justice system is based on the premise that adolescents have needs and capacities that are different from adults’. Adolescents are still developing mentally, physically, and emotionally, and are forming their identities. As a result, juveniles who break the law should be treated differently than adults who do the same. Following a rise in juvenile crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, “get tough on crime” policies led to an increase in the number of children being tried as adults and committed to adult facilities. Such settings can be harmful to adolescents. Juveniles may face higher risks of rape, assault, and suicide when placed in adult prisons, although reliable statistics are lacking. Multiple studies show, however, that those who are transferred to adult facilities are more likely to reoffend.
The issue of juvenile incarceration encompasses more than youth who are determined by a court to be delinquent. As many as one in five confined youth are awaiting a hearing to determine their culpability; others are waiting to learn the disposition of their case and/or a decision regarding placement. Youth can also be incarcerated for status offenses or for violating terms of probation.
One estimate is that, at any given time, nearly 53,000 youth are being held in facilities (including settings other than residential placement) due to involvement with the juvenile or criminal justice system. As many as one in ten youth are held in adult jails and prisons, where dangers to their health and safety are greater and where age-appropriate services are fewer. Given the large proportion of youth who have experienced multiple adverse experiences, the typical placement environment is especially toxic, as it is likely to contribute to their re-traumatization.
Even in juvenile facilities, though, children may be victimized by staff members. According to a national survey conducted in 2012, an estimated 10 percent of young people in juvenile facilities reported sexual victimization by staff members or a peer. Moreover, most facilities in the United States do not deal effectively with the issues that lead youth to offend. Recidivism rates are comparable to those of adult offenders.
Mental health needs are often urgent for adolescents in the justice system. Many experience mental illness (estimates range as high as 70 percent, with prevalence among girls as high as 80 percent, compared with 20 percent among the total adolescent population)., In juvenile facilities, many such problems go untreated or are dealt with inadequately. Suicide rates in juvenile facilities are more than four times higher than for adolescents overall. Suicide is even more likely for adolescents confined in isolation.
There are major inequities in youth confinement and treatment by race and Hispanic origin, with black and American Indian youth five and three times more likely, respectively, to be in residential placement than white youth. Latino youth are 65 percent more likely than white youth to be in a residential placement.
*“Juveniles” generally refers to those under age 18, but the definition varies by state; those who fall under juvenile court jurisdiction may be under 17, for example. Delinquency is defined as behavior that would be considered illegal if committed by adults.
Rates of juveniles in residential placement have fallen for more than a decade. In 2015, 152 juveniles per 100,000 population (48,043 total) were in residential placements, compared with 356 per 100,000 in 1997. The rate fell roughly equally among whites, blacks, and Hispanics (55 to 70 percent). Over that same period, rates for Asian youth fell the most (88 percent), while rates for American Indians fell the least (47 percent) (Appendix 1).
Males are much more likely than females to be in residential placement, accounting for 85 percent of all juveniles in residential placement in 2015. This proportion has fluctuated, but in general has not changed since 1997 (Appendix 1).
Female adolescents are committed to facilities at higher rates than in some previous years, although the rate in 2015 was lower than the 20-year peak in 1996. The majority of females in the juvenile justice system report having experienced physical, sexual, or emotional victimization. Many females first enter the system as runaways, or for other status offenses (offenses not considered illegal for adults), and cite abuse at home as a primary reason for leaving. Once in the system, they often do not receive adequate treatment and often have different needs than their male counterparts. In 2015, 12 percent of female adolescents in residential placement were there because of status offences, compared with 4 percent of male adolescents. However, this gap is shrinking: In 1997, 23 percent of females in residential placement were there because of status offences, versus 4 percent of males.
Most juveniles in residential placement (95 percent in 2015) are there because of delinquency. The other 5 percent committed status offenses (behaviors that are illegal for underage persons but not for adults, such as running away, incorrigibility [i.e., “beyond the control of parents, guardians, or custodians”], and truancy) as their most serious offense. In 2015, 27 percent of juveniles in residential placement had committed violent crimes as their most serious offense and 18 percent had committed property crimes., Only 2 percent had committed criminal homicide. Five percent had committed drug-related offenses, and 13 percent had committed disturbances to the public order (Appendix 2).
In 2015, non-Hispanic Asian and white youth had the lowest rates of juvenile residential placement among males (38 and 138 per 100,000 population, respectively). Hispanic males had a rate of 237 per 100,000, followed by non-Hispanic American Indian males, at 384, and non-Hispanic black males, at 746.
As in the case of males, female non-Hispanic black and American Indian adolescents had the highest rates of residential placement (110 and 134 per 100,000, respectively, in 2015). Non-Hispanic white females were also less likely to be in residential placement (32 per 100,000 in 2015) than Hispanic females (44 per 100,000). Non-Hispanic Asian females were the least likely to be in residential placement, with a rate of 7 per 100,000.
Rates of residential placement for Hispanic, non-Hispanic Asian, and non-Hispanic black adolescents have been decreasing since at least 1997, while rates for non-Hispanic white adolescents began to decline in 2001. For non-Hispanic American Indian adolescents, rates increased from 1997 to 2001 and then declined through 2015, with the exception of a small uptick in 2006 (Appendix 1).
*Hispanic youth may be of any race. Estimates of white and black youth in this report do not include Hispanic youth.
State estimates, through 2015, of the number of juveniles in residential placement or corrections facilities are available from the KIDS COUNT Data Center at: https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/42-youth-residing-in-juvenile-detention-and-correctional-facilities#detailed/2/2-52/false/573,36,867,133,18,17,14,12,10,8/any/319,17599.
Additional subgroup data by state, through 2015, are available from the Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement data tool, available online at: http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezacjrp/asp/State_Comparison.asp.
Sickmund, M., Sladky, T. J., Kang, W., & Puzzanchera, C. (2017). Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement [Data tool]. Retrieved from http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezacjrp/.
Raw data source
OJJDP’s Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2015. Retrieved from http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/ICPSR/series/241 .
Juveniles in residential placement are defined as those under age 18 who were assigned a bed in a juvenile residential custody facility in the United States as of the last Wednesday in October in a given year.
Rates are computed per 100,000 juveniles ages 10 through the upper age of each state’s juvenile court jurisdiction. The number of children younger than age 10 in residential placement is not large enough to warrant the inclusion of younger age groups in the denominator of rate calculations. States’ upper age limits of original juvenile court jurisdiction up through 2016 are available at https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/structure_process/qa04101.asp.
Data do not include those juveniles in adult facilities or those juveniles held exclusively in drug treatment or mental health facilities.
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 More-specific definitions of incorrigibility vary by state. For more information see: U.S. Department of Justice. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (n.d.). Deinstitutionalization of status offenders promising practices nomination form. Retrieved from http://www.ojjdp.gov/programs/DSOpromisingpractices2009.pdf
 The violent crime index includes criminal homicide, violent sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault.
 The property crime index includes burglary, theft, auto theft, and arson.