Report finds nearly 80% decline in youth incarceration

Washington, DC — The Sentencing Project on May 16 released a report, “Youth Justice By The Numbers” which found a 77% decrease in youth incarceration at juvenile facilities between 2000 and 2020 (from 109,000 to 25,000). Public opinion often lags behind these realities, wrongly assuming both that crime is perpetually increasing and that youth offending is routinely violent. But in fact, most youth offenses are low-level, nonviolent offenses and the 21st century has witnessed significant declines in youth offending, arrests, and incarceration.   

“The Sentencing Project is encouraged by the sharp declines in youth arrests and incarceration over the past 20 years, which demonstrate the possibilities for similar successes for the adult population,” said Josh Rovner, Director of Youth Justice at The Sentencing Project. “Nevertheless, there are still significant hurdles to overcome, particularly the racial and ethnic disparities in the youth justice system. We urge lawmakers to advance policies that will address the persistent racial and ethnic disparities of youth justice, and redirect resources to effective solutions rather than relying on detention.” 

The report also found that: 

Youth of color are much more likely than white youth to be held in juvenile facilities. In 2019, Black youth were 4.4 times as likely to be incarcerated; Tribal youth were 3.2 times as likely; and Latinx youth were 27% as likely than white youth to be incarcerated. Asian youth were the least likely to be held in juvenile facilities.

White youth are more likely to be diverted from formal court involvement. And when convicted, white youth are more likely to receive probation or informal sanctions, whereas Black youth are more likely to be incarcerated.

The arrest rate for people under 18 years old has declined 80% through 2020, since peaking in 1996.

Juvenile placement rates vary widely among states. The highest is Alaska, where 330 out of 100,000 youth are in placement; the lowest is New Hampshire, where 20 out of 100,000 youth are held.

Between 1997 and 2021, there was an 84% drop in the number of youth in adult jails and prisons.

As The Sentencing Project marks 50 years since the era of mass incarceration began, states working to end this overly punitive era can learn important lessons from both the rise and then the sustained fall in youth arrests and placements.

This report is the latest in a series of publications highlighting the 50-year legacy of mass incarceration in the United States as part of The Sentencing Project’s 50 Years and A Wake Up campaign.