A Paradox in Juvenile Detention

By: Nick Fiaschetti

Part of the attraction of law school for me was knowing that I would not have to do math. As I’ve now come to find out in fact, the running joke in the legal community seems to be how bad most attorneys are at doing math. With that said, I never considered myself incapable of grasping mathematics. I actually got mostly straight A’s in math in high school; I simply just don’t care for working with numbers. I am now concerned, however, that maybe I really am bad at math. Looking at recent juvenile incarceration statistics has me scratching my head for answers. I’m now going to report some numbers, and hopefully someone can help me add all this up.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2014, over one-million individuals under the age of 18 were arrested across the United States. In that same year, of those under 18 who were arrested, 63% were white and 34% were black. I typically avoid buying into racial stereotypes and most rhetoric on racial issues, but even I’ll admit I was almost relieved to see the numbers here. Maybe law enforcement and the justice system are not as racially biased as many would have you believe. Certainly if 63% of all those arrested in 2014 were white, this is evidence that police officers are not simply targeting all minority youth children. As relieved as I was to see these numbers, that relief gave way to only confusion as I kept digging.

While it does appear that more white youth are arrested when compared to other groups, there is a staggering decline in actual detention rates. The U.S. Department of Justice reported in 2013, that for every 100,000 individuals simply living in the U.S., 464 of those individuals were black youth under 18 incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility. Stated differently, for every 100,000 people living in a geographic area, 464 of those individuals will be incarcerated black youth. This same statistic for white youth is only 100 for every 100,000. And this is where my head starts to hurt.

I’m not great at math, but I’m decent enough to know that something doesn’t add up here. How can 63% of all juvenile arrests made be for white youth, but have overwhelmingly more black youth actually incarcerated? One conclusion may be that the crimes committed between the different racial youth groups are different. While there are statistics that show certain demographics are seemingly more likely to commit certain offenses, the numbers really don’t explain the staggering difference in arrest rates compared to actual incarceration rates. The DOJ reported in 2013 that of those incarcerated for criminal homicide, only 18% were white youth, while 48% were black youth. In that same year, of those incarcerated for sexual assault, 53% were white youth, and only 26% were black youth. Homicide and sexual assault are serious offenses which carry serious penalties with them. And while the numbers do indicate a demographic inclination towards certain crimes, these numbers simply do not explain how there can be such a staggering difference in actual incarceration rates. Something seriously doesn’t add up.. As I said, I tend to stay away from most racial stereotyping and rhetoric, but when I see incarceration rates that simply do not match arrest rates, I’m left with few conclusions that don’t point to the justice department having a lot of explaining to do.


U.S. Department of Justice, OJJDP Statistical Briefing BookOJJDP Statistical Briefing Book, April 27, 2015.  OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/corrections/qa08205.asp?qaDate=2013

U.S. Department of Justice, OJJDP Statistical Briefing BookOJJDP Statistical Briefing Book, April 27, 2015.


U.S. Department of Justice, OJJDP Statistical Briefing BookOJJDP Statistical Briefing Book, December 13, 2015.


U.S. Department of Justice, OJJDP Statistical Briefing BookOJJDP Statistical Briefing Book, December 13, 2015.


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