The State of America’s Children 2021 – Youth Justice2021-04-15T13:38:34-05:00

The State of America’s Children® 2021

Youth Justice


The number of children arrested and incarcerated has declined over the past decade, largely due to positive changes in policy and practice. However, America’s children continue to be criminalized at alarming rates and disparities have persisted. 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.

  • In 2019, 696,620 children were arrested in the U.S. (see Table 32). A child or teen was arrested every 45 seconds despite a 62 percent reduction in child arrests between 2009 and 2019.1
  • During the 2015-2016 school year alone, there were over 61,000 school arrests and 230,000 referrals to law enforcement, largely overrepresented by students with disabilities, Black students, and Indigenous students. The prioritization of police over mental health professionals in schools often leads to the criminalization of typical adolescent behavior and fuels the school-to-prison pipeline. Today, 14 million students attend schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.2
  • 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.3
  • Another 653 children were incarcerated in adult prisons on any given night in 2019—down from 2,743 in 2009 (see Table 33).
  • Despite research showing that young people’s brains continue to develop and mature through their late teens and into their mid-twenties,young adults do not often have access to the age- and developmentally- appropriate policies and resources they need. Adolescents and young adults often “age out” of offending; however, as of 2021, 46 states and the District of Columbia automatically prosecute 18-year-olds as adults and 3 states automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults (Vermont is the first and only state to expand juvenile court jurisdiction to 18). All states also allow or require younger children charged with certain offenses to be prosecuted in adult court.5

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, continue to be overcriminalized and overrepresented at every point—from school discipline and arrest to sentencing and post-adjudication placements.

  • Although 63 percent of children arrested in the U.S. were white, American Indian children were 1.5 times more likely to be arrested and Black children were 2.4 times more likely to be arrested than white children.6
  • In 2017, the residential placement rate for children of color was two times higher than that of white children nationwide: Hispanic children were 1.4 times more likely, American Indian children were 2.8 times more likely, and Black children were 4.6 times more likely to be committed or detained than white children. In 18 states and the District of Columbia, the residential placement rate for children of color was four times higher than that 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 2018, Black youth represented less than 15 percent of the total youth population but 52 percent of youth prosecuted in adult criminal court.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 the 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. However, 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 LGBTQ children of color.12

Children do not belong in prisons. Incarceration does not support the growth and development of our children; it places them at risk and limits their access to resources.

  • While incarcerated, children are often provided with inadequate education instruction, health care, and counseling services and they are at greater risk of maltreatment, physical and psychological abuse, sexual assault, and suicide.13
  • The use of solitary confinement further deprives them of social interaction, mental stimulation, and key services during a critical time of adolescent brain development. Youth of color and LGBTQ youth are at heightened risk of being placed in solitary confinement and youth with disabilities are often placed in isolation due to lack of available services or accommodations—when no child should be placed in solitary confinement regardless of identity.14
  • Risks are heightened for children in the adult criminal justice system, which is even more 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.15

As youth crime and arrest rates continue to decline, now is the time to re-imagine youth justice. We have better choices than incarceration: diversion, treatment, after school programs, and family support programs support children, keep communities safe, and save taxpayer dollars. It is time to end the criminalization of children and provide every child time and space for learning, mistakes, and restorative support from caring adults.

COVID-19 Magnifies the Harms of Incarceration

With continued reliance on criminalization and incarceration, our nation’s children—especially Black children—are being put at risk of lasting harm to their health, development, and well-being instead of receiving the resources and supports they need. This is especially true amid the ongoing pandemic.

Latoyia Porter of Louisiana is filing early release papers for her son, Treyjon. “We can do more for him on this side of the facility. He’s already served five years for vehicular theft, a non-violent crime,” she said. “With no rehabilitation services, what’s the point of having him in there?” Treyjon and other young people detained in Louisiana have had their rehabilitation services suspended; have been pepper sprayed by untrained temps; and have been denied COVID-19 tests despite having symptoms. “It’s really hard for a mother not to be in control of her child’s healthcare,” Latoyia explains.16

Living in congregate care settings with inadequate resources puts children like Treyjon at great risk of COVID-19. As of late February 2021, more than 3,750 young people in juvenile facilities and even more staff have been diagnosed with coronavirus across 41 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.17 The roughly 44,000 incarcerated children across the country are living in fear of COVID-19 and are facing solitary confinement as a form of social distancing, limited access to PPE, limited or no visitations or contact with loved ones, and limited educational and recreational activities. To date, their needs have largely been ignored by federal lawmakers as they have crafted legislation to respond to the crisis.