Josh Rovner, the Director of Youth Justice, authored this briefing paper as part of the campaign titled “50 Years and a Wake Up: Ending The Mass Incarceration Crisis In America.” The campaign aims to shed light on the critical condition of the criminal legal system in the country, the detrimental effects of incarceration on communities and families, and suggests more efficient strategies for crime prevention.
The Sentencing Project is an advocate for just and compassionate approaches to crime that reduce imprisonment and the criminalization of both youth and adults. The organization strives for racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice.
Youth Arrests and Incarceration: A Look at the Numbers
- Youth arrests and incarceration increased in the late 20th century but have significantly fallen since then.
- Public opinion often wrongly assumes that crime is perpetually increasing and that youth offending is routinely violent.
- Youth offending is predominantly low-level, and the 21st century has witnessed substantial declines in youth arrests and incarceration.
- Between 2000 and 2020, the number of youth held in juvenile justice facilities decreased by 77%, from 109,000 to 25,000.
- The one-day count of youth incarceration in 2020, taken in late October, dropped by over 30% compared to 2019, likely due to reduced youth offending and arrests during the pandemic and decreased use of incarceration to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
- Youth of color are much more likely to be held in juvenile facilities compared to white youth. Black youth were 4.4 times as likely to be incarcerated, tribal youth were 3.2 times as likely, and Latinx youth were 27% more likely, while Asian youth were the least likely to be held in such facilities.
- Disparities in youth incarceration arise from differences in offending and differential treatment at various points in the justice system. Black youth are more likely to be arrested, detained upon arrest, and incarcerated compared to their white peers.
- Rates of youth placement in juvenile facilities vary widely among states, with the highest placement rate in Alaska (330 per 100,000 youth) and the lowest rate in New Hampshire (20 per 100,000 youth).
- The annual count of detained youth has decreased by 68% since 2005, with approximately one in four youths referred to juvenile court being initially detained in 2020.
- The annual count of committed youth has declined by 80% since 1999, with 35,900 youth committed for delinquency offenses in 2020.
- The arrest rate for individuals under 18 years old peaked in 1996 and has since declined by over 80%. In most years, roughly 6% of youth arrests are for violent crimes, although that proportion increased to 8% in 2020.
- The number of youth held in adult jails and prisons has decreased by 84% since 1997, with 2,000 people under 18 held in an adult jail and 292 held in an adult prison in 2021.
- While there have been significant improvements in youth arrests and incarceration, persistent racial and ethnic disparities in the youth justice system remain, highlighting the need to address the sources of these disparities.