At Camp Kenyon Scudder, a girls detention center, a new arrival has her handcuffs removed in 2013. (Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times)


Opinion: Juvenile detention centers have failed juveniles

The juvenile criminal justice system is an integral aspect of our society. Historically, juvenile detention centers have been birthed from the same prison logics that we see permeate the criminal justice system, specially dating back to European methods of population control, according to “Juvenile Justice: Redeeming Our Children” by Barry Krisberg. The juvenile criminal justice…
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May 22, 2021

The juvenile criminal justice system is an integral aspect of our society. Historically, juvenile detention centers have been birthed from the same prison logics that we see permeate the criminal justice system, specially dating back to European methods of population control, according to “Juvenile Justice: Redeeming Our Children” by Barry Krisberg.

The juvenile criminal justice system currently has thousands of children inside of its system and facilities. A 2019 Prison Policy Initiative report states, “By our most conservative estimates, states could release at least 13,500 more youth today without great risk to public safety. These include almost 1,700 youth held for status offenses, 1,800 held for drug offenses other than trafficking, over 3,300 held for public order offenses not involving weapons, and 6,700 held for technical violations.”

As the juvenile criminal justice system fails to break cycles of violence and disproportionately affects communities of color, there should be a redirection of funds from these facilities to social programs. 

There are a variety of different ways that the juvenile criminal justice system fails to make meaningful change and affects children that are placed inside. First, there are oftentimes forms of violence reproduced inside of the juvenile criminal justice system that causes psychological violence.

One example of this is the sexual abuse that is present within juvenile detention centers. 

A 2020 article by The Appeal states, “Sexual abuse of incarcerated children, including by staff, is widespread and has been repeatedly documented. A 2018 report issued last year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that over 7% of incarcerated children reported being sexually abused in the previous year.”

The effect of such widespread sexual abuse is not only the trauma that a victim develops, but also the trauma leading to a path to the juvenile justice system, known as the “sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline,” according to Kids Imprisoned, the project of the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

Mary Marx, president and CEO of Florida’s Pace Center for Girls, told Kids Imprisoned that experiencing childhood sexual abuse often leads to a behavior that increases the likelihood of arrest.

The way that sexual assault occurs within the juvenile detention center is something that often leads to more crime.

Methods of surveillance in the juvenile criminal justice system such as the ankle monitor have also caused damage beyond their intended purpose. 

In a 2017 article published by The Marshal Project, Christopher shared his experience of “Adolescence with an Ankle Bracelet.”

“It was a black box with thick straps, and it weighed 3 pounds, which made walking kind of hard. At first, they put it on me loose, not skin-tight,” Christopher wrote for The Marshal Project. “But then some kids, apparently, started slipping the thing off, and so they brought us all in for tightening; they cinched it up right against my skin. I couldn’t wear high-top shoes anymore. It dug into me. I still have the scar.”

The permanent impact that methods such as ankle bracelets have on people not only limits their freedom but quite literally leaves a mark on the young person’s body.

The constant use of cruel punishment inflicted on the children inside of the juvenile criminal justice system has lasting effects.

According to the Sentencing Project, youth in the adult system are often placed in isolation in small cells without natural light for up to 23 hours a day. These conditions in isolation can exacerbate mental disorders, heighten the risk of suicide, and cause anxiety and paranoia.

This shows how the juvenile criminal justice system is one that creates trauma and risks the safety of incarcerated youth. The juvenile criminal justice system is ineffective at preventing crime and leads to violence and trauma for the children that are inside of it.

Another reason for why the juvenile criminal justice system is ill suited to being able to resolve crimes is due to the fact that it disproportionately affects people of color.

Human Impact Partners, youth of color are more likely to be tried as adults and receive harsher sentences than white youth, even when charged with similar offenses. In California in 2015, 88% of juveniles who were tried as adults were youth of color.

This shows that even when white and non-white people are at the trial stage of the process, there are often more lenient sentences given to white youth.

There are racial biases present within the juvenile criminal justice system. Brown and Black youth often receive harsher sentences which condemns them to spending more time in the criminal justice system. This means that they are more exposed to the harsh treatment and oftentimes abused.

Research in 2015 by Vanderbilt Law School Faculty Publications found that examining “the interface between the immigration system and juvenile justice system and its impact on Latino male juveniles reveals how race, lower socioeconomic class and poverty intersect to create disparate treatment within these systems. Alarming statistics demonstrate how Latino boys are increasingly interfacing with the juvenile justice system.”

According to Vanderbilt Law School Faculty Publications, “Across the country, there are approximately 600 juveniles arrested daily. Every Latino boy born in 2001 has a one in six chance of going to prison.”

This results in hyper-criminalization of youth of color, specifically Black and Brown boys. They are faced with increased surveillance from the police and other authority figures. This is a racist stereotype in society that people of color are a risk to public safety.

This shows how there is a presupposition that Brown and Black boys are guilty and this is important especially within a country where the motto of justice is that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. This disproves that the criminal justice system for juveniles is one that is fair and just because Black and Brown youth are held to a much harsher standard.

Some may say that we should just put more effort in reforming juvenile detention centers and that if we reform these juvenile detention centers, then we will see less recidivism.

According to, juvenile justice systems should instead emphasize “encouraging offender accountability through restorative justice, engaging in community service, and helping youths take responsibility and make amends for their actions. Juvenile justice systems should help prevent reoffending through structured risk and needs assessments and using interventions rooted in knowledge about adolescent development.”

It’s false to say that if we just put in enough effort, then reforms will always work. We must instead completely abolish them and redirect those resources to rehabilitation centers and therapeutic centers.

A resource made publicly available through the Office of Justice Programs’ National Criminal Justice Reference Service states, “Promising findings were seen for many of the non-delinquency outcomes for youth, although some uncertainty remains about these outcomes given the small number of studies and variability in effects. That said, youth in the restorative justice programs had a greater perception of fairness. The results also suggest that restorative justice youth are more satisfied with the restorative justice programs and have somewhat less supportive attitudes towards delinquency.”

This shows the ways that restorative justice aims to remedy the harm committed and mend relationships, rather than punish those that have committed a wrongdoing to another person.

This would ameliorate much of the harm that is caused by the juvenile criminal justice system due to the fact that youth would not be sent away as punishment but would rather do acts of service in order to be able to repay the debts that they owe for the crime that they committed. 

We are able to see the ways that the juvenile criminal justice system is ineffective at being able to prevent crime from happen and is able to flip the script on traditional notions of justice where Black and Brown youth are disproportionately deemed criminals. There is an alternative of restorative justice to be able to ameliorate the harms done by the crime.

Within the status quo, we can see a rise of the police across the nation and attempts to reform the criminal justice system are minor tweaks within a system that fundamentally carries the wrong framework to address crime. Rather there should be an embracement of restorative justice as a method to be able to resolve crime.