The State of America's Children® 2020

Youth Justice

>>>The State of America’s Children 2020 – Youth Justice
The State of America’s Children 2020 – Youth Justice2021-05-03T21:15:39-05:00

Despite Improvements, an Ineffective and Biased System Remains


Children are arrested
each day in the U.S.

Six-year-old Kaia suffers from sleep apnea, a disorder that makes it hard for her to get enough rest at night. One morning, Kaia was tired and struggling in her first grade class. Exhausted, she threw a tantrum. But instead of offering her compassion, support or tools to calm herself down, school staff sent her first to the principal’s office and then to jail. Although the charges were later dropped, the trauma lingers. Kaia can vividly recount the handcuffs, arrest and fingerprinting—a thought that brings her grandmother to tears. “No six-year-old child should be able to tell somebody that they had handcuffs on them and they were riding in the back of a police car,” she said.1

Shamefully, Kaia’s experience is far from unique in America. Too many children—particularly children in poverty; children of color; children with disabilities; children with mental health and substance abuse challenges; children subjected to neglect, abuse and/or other violence; children in foster care and LGBTQ children—are pushed out of their schools and homes into the juvenile justice or adult criminal justice systems. While the number of children arrested and incarcerated has declined over the past decade largely due to positive changes in policy and practice, America’s children continue to be criminalized at alarming rates.

  • In 2018, 728,280 children were arrested in the U.S. (see Table 33). A child or teen was arrested every 43 seconds despite a 63 percent reduction in child arrests between 2009 and 2018.
  • Although the number of children in the juvenile justice system has been cut in half since 2007, 43,580 children and youth were held in residential placement on a given night in 2017. Nearly 2 in 3 were placed in the most restrictive facilities.2
  • Another 935 children were incarcerated in adult prisons on any given night in 2017—down from 2,283 in 2007 (see Table 35). An estimated 76,000 children are prosecuted, sentenced or incarcerated as adults annually.3
  • While many states have made legislative changes to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18, five states still automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults (Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin) and all states allow children charged with certain offenses to be prosecuted in adult courts.4 

Even as child arrests and detentions have fallen, extreme racial disparities have persisted across the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. Children of color, particularly Black children like Kaia, continue to be overcriminalized and overrepresented at every point—from arrests to post-adjudication placements.

  • Although 62 percent of children arrested in the U.S. were white, children of color were nearly two times more likely to be arrested than white children.5 Black children were two and a half times more likely.6
  • In 2017, the residential placement rate for children of color was more than two times that for white children nationwide and more than four times that for white children in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Black children were committed or detained at nearly five times the rate of white children.7
  • Two-thirds (67 percent) of children in the juvenile justice system were children of color: 41 percent were Black and 21 percent were Hispanic (see Table 34).
  • Children of color are also disproportionately transferred to the adult criminal justice system, where they are tried and prosecuted as adults. In 2017, Black youth represented 54 percent of youth prosecuted in adult criminal court but only 15 percent of the total youth population.8 Black youth are nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence; American Indian/Alaska Native youth are almost two times more likely and Hispanic youth are 40 percent more likely.9

Boys, youth with disabilities and LGBTQ youth also come into disproportionate contact with juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.

  • In 2017, the residential placement rate for boys was more than five times that for girls. Eighty-five percent of children in residential placement were male.10
  • At least 1 in 3 youth in the juvenile justice system has a disability qualifying them for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—nearly four times the rate of youth in public schools. Less than half receive special education services while in custody.11
  • The percent of LGBTQ children in the juvenile justice system (20 percent) is more than two times that of LGBTQ youth in the general population (7-9 percent); 85 percent are children of color.12

Once incarcerated, children are at risk of physical and psychological abuse, sexual assault, suicide and other harms, including inadequate educational instruction. The use of solitary confinement further deprives them of social interaction, mental stimulation and key services during a critical time of adolescent brain development. Risks are heightened for children in the adult criminal justice system, which is focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation and treatment. Children in adult jails are more likely to suffer permanent trauma and are five times more likely to die by suicide than children held in juvenile detention centers.13

We have better choices than incarceration. Diversion, treatment, after school and family support programs support children, keep communities safe and save taxpayer dollars. It is time to end the criminalization of children like Kaia and provide every child time and space for learning, mistakes and restorative correction by caring adults.

Immigrant Children are America’s Children: Youth Justice

When children migrate to the U.S. without a parent and in search of safety, they receive certain legal protections in recognition of their unique vulnerabilities. Migrant children, like all children, have unique needs due to their age and experiences, which require special child protection and support. Detention is no place to offer this necessary protection and support, but a 2019 Amnesty International USA report finds too many children are experiencing prison-like conditions while in the care and custody of the U.S. government.

The report focuses on the conditions at Homestead, a “temporary emergency” shelter that is part of the Office of Refugee Resettlement network of facilities. Amnesty International investigators found an impersonal, industrial and highly restrictive setting where children must wear ID badges with barcodes, sleep in barrack-style housing, follow chalked lines when moving from place to place and follow a strict schedule. At the height of its operation, Homestead held a jaw-dropping 2,500 children. The government continues to retain access to Homestead in case of “temporary influx.”14

Facilities like Homestead bear the markers of the prison industrial complex as opposed to community-centered care. They are no home for children.15