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Prison Policy Institute Study Says Juvenile Justice System Problems Mirror Adult Issues

by Derek Gilna

The Prison Policy Institute (PPI) in 2018 published a study of the juvenile justice system, which concluded that it “mirrors” many of the same problems of the adult criminal justice system.
This study is important in that the average daily population of juvenile detainees averages 53,000, many of whom are in “restrictive, correctional-style facilities,” including pretrial detainees who have not been found guilty of any crime and who have not been adjudicated as delinquent.
According to PPI, some of these problems were “racial disparities, punitive conditions, pretrial detention, and over criminalization.”
Of the 53,000 detainees, over 18,000 are in detention centers, 12,000 are in long-term secure facilities, 11,000 are in residential treatment, ( which often resembles detention facilities), over 4,000 are in group homes, and a similar number are confined in adult prisons. Although some are violent offenders, more than a quarter are confined for technical, non-violent violations.
Unfortunately, the same racial disparity that exists in adult carceral facilities exists in juvenile detention. As noted by PPI, while fewer than "14% of all youth under 18 in the U.S. are Black, 43% of boys and 34% of girls in juvenile facilities are Black. And even excluding youth held in Indian country facilities, American Indians make up 3% of girls and 1.5% of boys in juvenile facilities, despite comprising less than 1% of all youth nationally.”
The study also decries that fact that youths confined in detention center, long-term secure facilities, and reception/diagnostic centers, which comprises about two-thirds of those confined, are “'restricted by locked doors, gates, or fences' rather than staff-secured, and 60% are in large facilities designed for more than 50 youths.”
The study concluded that the adult and juvenile justice system share many problems: “Like so many adults who are unnecessarily detained in jails, thousands of justice-involved children and adolescents languish in detention centers without even being found delinquent. They, too, are locked up in large numbers for low-level, non-violent offenses. And many youth face similarly dehumanizing conditions when they are locked up in juvenile facilities that look and feel like adult jails and prisons. For advocates and policymakers working to find alternatives to incarceration, ending youth confinement should be a top priority.”
PPI had several suggestions for improving the juvenile justice system, including, “Updating laws to reflect our current understanding of brain development and criminal behavior over the life course, such as raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction and ending the prosecution of youth as adults; removing all youth from adult jails and prisons; shifting youth away from confinement and investing in non-residential community-based programs; limiting pretrial detention and youth confinement to the very few who, if released, would pose a clear risk to public safety; eliminating detention or residential placement for technical violations of probation, and diverting status offenses away from the juvenile justice system.”

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