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Reduce Juvenile Detention

When young people engage in delinquent behavior and are arrested, it is important to address their actions in ways that take into account their diminished decision-making capacity, their susceptibility to peer influence, and their unformed character, all of which make them less responsible for their conduct than are adults who commit similar offenses.[1] These same qualities make youth more successful candidates for rehabilitation.  However, youth continue to be detained for nonviolent offenses when other interventions would have been more appropriate and less costly.

In 2006 more than 90,000 young people were detained in residential placements.  Many youth are detained because of property and public order offenses, status offenses, drug possession, violations of court orders related to status offenses and probation violations—which are nonviolent crimes. Additionally, minority youth are disproportionately represented in detention facilities.

The ramifications of detention can be disastrous, for both youth and public safety. Young people who experience detention have higher rates of attempted suicide and psychiatric disorders; that often go untreated or are inappropriately treated.  Youth who are held in detention also have higher recidivism rates and are more likely to engage in adult criminal behavior than youth who are not detained.

Because the juvenile justice system is administered at the state level, state policymakers are uniquely positioned to reduce the inappropriate or unnecessary use of juvenile detention. This can be achieved through strategies such as ensuring responsible juvenile sentencing, reducing racial disparities, developing alternatives to detention, and mandating safe confinement and appropriate service provision. Through policy, created with a focus on the unique ability of youth to rehabilitate, states can address anti-social or criminal offenses committed by youth in a way that allows for meaningful change in a young person’s life, and provides them with an opportunity to grow into productive adults.

[1] Steinberg, L. (2008). Introducing the Issue.  The Future of Children.  Available online.

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To achieve results, this reform effort depends on three key ingredients: leadership, authority and collaboration. Strong leadership may be the most important prerequisite for success in reforming the juvenile detention system. For more information, see A Practice Guide for State Advisory Groups

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By reducing its reliance on secure detention, Multnomah County closed three detention units and diverted approximately $12 million to detention alternatives.

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Through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, Cook County, Ill., avoided construction of a $24 million detention facility, redirecting those resources.

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The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) has set the standard for detention reduction nationally. JDAI sites have saved millions of dollars, produced important research on strategies that reduce unnecessary or inappropriate use of detention and improved the juvenile detention system.