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Fewer Juveniles in U.S. Detention Facilities, But Problems Persist

by Jordan Arizmendi

Anyone who watches news or primetime television shows may think that crime by violent youths is on the rise. However, a study released by The Sentencing Project in May 2023 proves the opposite is true: Between 2000 and 2020, the number of youths held at U.S. juvenile detention facilities dropped by roughly 77%, from 109,000 to just 25,000.

The study examined the total number of juveniles held in detention on a typical day, finding a roughly bell-shaped curve from 1975 to 2011 centered on the 2000 peak and tapering off to just 54,000 detained youths on either end of that span. Since 2011, the number has continued to fall, experiencing an even sharper decline after 2019 as the COVID-19 pandemic got underway.

The youth arrest rate followed a similar pattern. In 1980, there were about 6,300 arrests per 100,000 youths aged 10-17. That number grew by 1996 to roughly 8,300 per 100,000, before falling to about 1,200 in 2020. The number of youths in held in adult jails and prisons also reached its peak in the late 1990s, hitting 14,500 in 1997 before plummeting to just 2,000 in 2021. See: Youth Justice by the Numbers, The Sentencing Project (2023).

A predictable result has been the closure of juvenile detention facilities. The Board of Managers of Juvenile Detention in Pennsylvania’s Delaware County voted in March 2023 to proceed with demolition of a 60-bed youth lockup in Lima, on the rural outskirts of ex-urban Philadelphia – also dropping plans to design and build a replacement. County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Kevin F. Kelly closed the facility in March 2021 after public defenders brought forward allegations of abuse, and the state pulled the center’s operating license.

Minnesota’s Red River Valley Juvenile Center was also shut down in March 2023, not long after reopening following a two-year hiatus caused by its deteriorating facility. Thanks to a lack of available guards, its young detainees – it could hold up to 16 – were sent to detention facilities out of state.

Of course, attracting guards is difficult when young detainees suffer problems and act out violently. Three assaults on staff were reported in May 2023 at Ohio’s Indian River Juvenile Correctional Facility. State Department of Youth Services spokesman Ryan Heimberger said such assaults had decreased since pepper spray and body were introduced after disturbances in October 2022.

That reflects a disturbing trend toward treating juveniles like adult prisoners. In Louisiana, some are housed in the notorious state penitentiary in Angola. [See: PLN, Aug. 5, 2022, online.]

More commonly reported are staff assaults on juvenile detainees. An incident with guards at Ohio’s Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center on May 7, 2023, left 15-year-old Demarion Allen possibly paralyzed from the waist down, he told the Columbus Dispatch. In Osceola County, Florida, a “full-blown relationship” with a 17-year-old detainee at Kissimmee Youth Academy resulted in the arrest of guard Rachelle Edwards, 33, on May 16, 2023.

A week earlier, on May 9, 2023, an unnamed 18-year-old detainee was found dead of an apparent drug overdose at Los Angeles County’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall. The California Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) ordered the county to close the lockup and one another on May 23, 2023, despite assurances there was an “aggressive” remedial plan in place. BSCC members said they’d “heard this before” and called the plan “way too late.”

Additional sources: Akron Beacon Journal, Columbus Dispatch, DELCO Times, KVLY, LAist, Orlando Sentinel, San Fernando Valley Sun

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