Report: American children incarcerated roughly 250,000 times in 2019

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WASHINGTON, D.C.  –  Despite states’ and counties’ regular reliance on detention when responding to misbehaviors and offenses committed by youth, the scope and impact of youth incarceration in the United States is not fully understood and traditional counts understate its size, according to analysis released by The Sentencing Project. 

“Every time juvenile courts decide to confine a young person, even for short stays, devastating and life-long consequences may result,” said Josh Rovner, Senior Advocacy Associate and the author of the new report, Too Many Locked Doors. “Understanding the full scope of kids’ incarceration is critical to protecting youth and ensuring equal justice for youth of color.”

The report offers a fresh look at nationwide juvenile courts data, such as the frequency of youth detention after encounters with law enforcement and out-of-home placements after court hearings. More than one in four youth are detained upon their arrest, a ratio that has slightly worsened over the course of the last decade. In 2019, there were nearly 200,000 instances of a youth detained upon their arrest, often for less than two or three weeks. More than 55,000 times, youths were sent to out-of-home placement after their court hearings. 

Every other year, a one-day count is conducted to provide a snapshot of the extent of youth incarceration; that count overlooks more than four out of five instances of a child or adolescent being removed from their home. Too Many Locked Doors offers a more comprehensive view of youth incarceration. 

Overall, there are far fewer youth in detention and commitment than a decade ago, largely due to declines in youth offending and arrests. When American children and adolescents are arrested, the juvenile justice system too often detains and commits them, and youth of color are treated even more harshly than their white peers. 

The report includes policy recommendations to reduce youth confinement, such as eliminating the detention of young children and those with low-level offenses.