The Dangers of Youth Detention

By: Margaret Nollau

The purpose of detention centers is to temporarily hold minors in locked custody while they await trial or the court’s final disposition of their case (for example, a sentencing order).  Crime rates in America are the lowest in twenty years, yet hundreds of thousands of youth are detained every year in the country’s 591 detention centers.  Despite reduced crime rates, the number of minors being incarcerated is actually on the rise.  The rationale for keeping these youth is that they are “high risk”; it is believed they are violent, will re-offend before trial, or will not appear for their scheduled court date.  Many of these kids, however, do not meet that profile.  In fact, 70% of the minors in detention are detained for nonviolent crimes.

What is intended to be a protective measure for bringing these youth to justice may actually cause more harm than good.  Experts have highlighted three of the many ways in which these kids are harmed by their detention.

First, it has been found that juvenile detention centers closely resemble adult jails.  Not only are the detained youth separated from their families and support systems, the people most interested in their recovery, but often become subject to neglect and violence due to the facilities being overcrowded and understaffed.  Furthermore, they often learn bad behaviors from peers detained in the same centers but for greater offenses.

Second, detention has a negative impact on the youth’s mental and physical well-being, education, and future employment.  A study found one-third of detained youth had been diagnosed with depression, the onset of which occurred after their incarceration.  Their poor mental health and the conditions of confinement make it more likely that these kids will engage in self-harm behavior or attempt suicide. Economists have shown that incarcerating youth will reduce their future earnings and ability to maintain stable employment.  One study found that detaining youth (ages 16-25) reduced their work time by as much as 30% for the next decade.  Furthermore, educational researchers conclude almost 40% of detained youth have learning disabilities and will face significant challenges in trying complete their education after detention.

The third concern is the disproportionate effect of detention of minorities.  In 2003, minorities accounted for 61% of all detained youth in the United States.  Even in a state like Pennsylvania, 85% of whose overall population is white, minorities accounted for over half of the youth in detention.  In 2003, African-Americans were detained at a rate 4.5 times higher than white youth and Latino youth were detained twice as much as whites.  This disparity does not exist because minorities are committing more crimes than Caucasians.  In fact, surveys from the late 1990’s showed Caucasian youth used and sold drugs at the same rates as other races, yet African-Americans were detained twice as much as Caucasians for the same offenses.  It is believed Caucasians’ greater access to legal representation and the stereotypes held by the people involved in the decision to detain youth account for part of the inequality.

The high detention rates of youth is a serious problem in America today, and unfortunately it does not have a clear, simple fix.  One thing that scholars and researchers do agree on, however, is the need for a comprehensive reform of the juvenile justice system.


Barry Holman and Jason Zeidenberg, The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities, Justice Policy Institute (Apr. 1, 2016),

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