Two new reports shine a light on a very dark place: youth behind bars.

One, from the KIDS COUNT project[i], highlights the remarkable news that rates of youth confinement in the U.S. have reached a new 35-year low, a drop seen in nearly every state.[1]  This trend coincides with a decline—that’s right, a decline—in youth crime.  That makes sense: fewer crimes, fewer kids in jail.  But it also weakens the argument that punitive consequences act as a deterrent to bad behavior.

Let’s start with the evidence: the default response, locking up offending youth, doesn’t work.  More than half of delinquent youth re-offend within one year.[ii]  But it’s not just that incarcerating youth isn’t an effective crime-reducing strategy; it’s that it positively harms young people.

The second report is from the U.S. Department of Justice.[iii]  It reminds us that, nationwide, every year nearly two million arrests of children (anyone younger than age 18) are made.  But its primary subject is an ongoing study of more than 1,800 youth (ages 10-17) arrested and detained in Cook County, IL, between 1995 and 1998, who are now adults.  These kinds of data are rare; it’s expensive to follow individuals through the twists and turns of their lives—perhaps especially so for a sample like this one.

At the time of their detention, almost three-quarters of females, and two-thirds of males, had one or more psychiatric disorders.  Many had multiple disorders, including multiple substance use disorders.  Sadly, only 15 percent of these received any mental health treatment while in detention. [iv]

Three years after their detention, most of the sample were struggling in one or more major life domains.  One in six had developed antisocial personality disorder.  Only eight percent had no significant impairments.  Seven years after their detention, mortality among the sample was four times that of the general population (for females, seven times), nearly all their deaths homicides.  While not definitive, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that detention did nothing positive for these youth, and may in fact have exacerbated their challenges.[v]

In contrast, approaches that apply constructive, therapeutic responses to changing delinquent behavior have repeatedly been shown to have very positive effects. [vi]   Most, however, are model programs that have yet to be taken to scale.[vii]  Although at least six states have passed legislation requiring such evidence-based programming[viii], one estimate is that these treatments reach fewer than five percent of high-risk juvenile offenders in the U.S. annually.[ix]

There are signs that, at long last, the tide is turning away from a system that further damages vulnerable youth.  Texas, a state not exactly known for being “soft” on crime, is a notable example.[x]  Following on a 2007 exposure of horrific conditions (including physical and sexual abuse) for its confined youth, the state made an about-face.  Soaring incarceration rates (and public expenses) for juveniles, accompanied by high recidivism also helped tip the balance.

Beginning with a pilot in 2007, and expanded in 2009, Texas redirected millions of dollars ($216M, as of 2011) away from corrections institutions for youth, and into counseling and therapeutic treatment programs for youth and their families.  The Texas Juvenile Probation Commission instituted new performance measures for its county-level grantees, including number of youth served in the new programs, the cost per youth, the number subsequently committed to a state facility, and recidivism rates.[xi]

The initiative has been successful enough in diverting youth from confinement, to close nine secure facilities.   Total savings between 2007 and 2011 (counting the re-investment in the community-based treatments) were nearly $94 million.  In 2011 the Texas legislature passed a bill creating a new juvenile justice agency, one express purpose of which is to “produce positive outcomes for youth, families, and communities.”[xii]

[1] The U.S. still leads all other developed countries in the proportion of its youth population that it incarcerates.

[i] The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2013). Reducing youth incarceration in the United States.  KIDS COUNT Data Snapshot. Retrieved from

[ii] Snyder, H. and Sickmund, M. (2006). Juvenile offenders and victims: 2006 National report.  Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

[iii] Teplin, L. A., Abram, K. M., Washburn, J. J., Welty, L., Hershfield, J.A., & Dulcan, M. (2013).  The Northwestern Juvenile Project: Overview.  Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.  Retrieved from

[iv] Ibid.  See also Child Trends’ recent series of briefs on adolescent mental health:

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Lipsey, M. W., Howell, J. C., Kelly, M. R., Chapman, G., & Carver, D. (2010). Improving the effectiveness of juvenile justice programs: A new perspective on evidence-based practice.  Available at

Henggeler, S. W. & Schoenwald, S. K. (2011). Evidence-based interventions for juvenile offenders and juvenile justice policies that support them.  SRCD Social Policy Report, 25(1).  Retrieved from

Child Trends’ “what works” database of more than 600 evaluated programs (\whatworks\) describes some of these effective programs.

[vii] Lipsey et al. Op. cit.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Henggeler & Schoenwald. Op. cit.

[x] Fowler, D. (2012). A true Texas miracle: Achieving juvenile justice reform in a tough economic climate.  Washington, DC: First Focus. Retrieved from

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.