The Cost: Juvenile Incarceration

By: Nicole Danner

Tens of thousands of juveniles are detained for the first time each year, which too often leads to a long-term pattern of involvement with the criminal justice system.  As much as $88,000 of state and federal tax dollars each year are spent to incarcerate a single juvenile for 9 – 12 months, totaling a combined amount of $5 billion among the states.

Critics argue the current juvenile criminal justice system is less than optimal.  Detention leads to a decrease in high school completion and an increase in adult incarceration.  Although intended to be short in duration (one to two months), such detention can be very disruptive.  For example, once incarcerated, juveniles are unlikely to ever return to school.  A recent study found juvenile incarceration decreases the chances of high school graduation by 13% – 39% and increases the chances of incarceration as an adult by 23% – 41% (as compared to the average public school student in the same area).

Comparing U.S. rates to those of other developed countries revealed not only does the U.S. have the highest rates of juvenile incarceration (336 per 100,000) but the rate is approximately five times higher than those of South Africa, the country with the second highest rate (69 per 100,000).  Equally alarming is the racial disparity among U.S. juveniles in detention facilities:  Of the approximately 70,000 juveniles in a detention facility each day, 68% are of racial minority.

Following events involving the police and unarmed black individuals in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York, as well as the “Black Lives Matter” campaign, moral and legal questions remain about the treatment of minority juveniles.  Some research and advocacy organizations have noted a “cascade of disparities” throughout the criminal justice system (i.e. uneven policing) making it much more likely young black males will be confronted, arrested and detained.  This has the potential to exacerbate already existing inequalities experienced by minorities because a criminal record and the experiences associated with time in the criminal justice system undermine educational and working lives.

Critics of the current system offer a few solutions to the overall high rates of juvenile incarceration, such as, electronic monitoring or enforced curfews.  Critics also suggest that the policies providing additional support and resources for at-risk juveniles should be put in place to help reverse the low rates at which juveniles return to school after being detained.  Additionally, critics suggest that policies increasing police presence in schools – which leads to an increase in juvenile arrests for relatively minor infractions – should be reconsidered.  It is argued that such policies are likely to lead to an increase in juvenile detention, therefore the continued use and expansion of such policies has the potential to reduce high school graduation rates for affected juveniles.

A restructuring of the current system may be in order.  However, how to approach such restructuring remains undecided.  Do we scrap detention centers all together?  Do we try electronic monitoring or enforced curfews?  Is a more structured, rehabilitative approach more beneficial?  Is there a problem with current policies?

Regardless of the answer, the current system appears to hinder the affected juvenile’s ability to lead successful lives free of future involvement with the criminal justice system; further, it does not aid such juveniles in successfully graduating.  This leaves one final question: is this a desirable end result?


John Wihbey, Juvenile incarceration and its impact on high school graduation rates and adult jail time, Journalist’s Resource (last updated February 4, 2015),

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