Juvenile Justice in the USA: Why the “Land of the Free” has the world’s largest prison population.

It may not come as a shock that the United States has a flawed juvenile justice system often riddled with controversy. If you turn on just about any news station, you’ll see stories about reported crimes, arrests, police brutality, scandal, and all manner of crime drama. News story narratives often paint a picture that seems black-and-white: an individual allegedly committed a crime, was arrested and convicted, and will serve their time and learn their lesson. More often than not, this is picture is incomplete.

In this “Global Juvenile Justice” mini-series, I will look at the juvenile justice systems of six countries (USA, Norway, Costa Rica, Netherlands, Singapore, and Portugal) to analyze, compare, and share a few resources if you want to learn more. Working in juvenile justice has profoundly shaped my perspective on our criminal and juvenile justice system. I have come to believe that each individual rightfully convicted of a crime must bear their fair share of responsibility, but that often these individuals have been failed by society and are far from the only ones to blame. In this post, I will try to show you why.

On the grounds of the female juvenile facility in Indiana.

 U.S. Juvenile Justice (by the numbers):

#22 in criminal justice (ranking out of countries by the World Justice Project)

3,978,000 people – Total incarcerated in 2015 (adult & juvenile). The U.S. has 25% of the world’s prisoner population, even though we make up only about 5% of the global population.

48,043 – # of incarcerated juveniles (As of Oct. 28, 2015).

1,878 – # of incarcerated juveniles in Indiana (in 2015)

~2500 – # of youth sentenced to life without parole

12 – states which have no minimum age for adult prosecution (youth can be tried as an adult at any age)

U.S. Juvenile Justice – The Good:

  • On the whole, researchers and policy makers are beginning to recognize and agree that juveniles are fundamentally different from adult offenders and should be treated as such. It is becoming more important that juvenile facilities provide rehabilitative services to youth.
  • Most states have adapted legislature so youth are no longer being sentenced as adults.
  • Many amazing programs exist and are being developed to help rehabilitate youth in correctional facilities. Just as an example: HOPE Mentoring, which is the organization for which I work, provides one-on-one mentoring to incarcerated juveniles and hosts facility-wide events such as career fairs and professional fashion shows to help youth develop employability skills.
  • President Obama banned solitary confinement for youth.

    stef at logansport mentoring
    A HOPE Mentor working with her mentee, an incarcerated teen male in Indiana.


U.S. Juvenile Justice – The Bad:

  • We are the only country who sentences minors to life without parole.
  • Many of our students are incarcerated for crimes that would not be illegal outside of their age (truancy, running away, underage drinking, underage driving). This means that many are being pulled out of school and incarcerated for non-violent offenses which are not threatening public safety.
  • It’s incredibly expensive. To incarcerate ONE student for a year in the most expensive setting (often maximum security), the price tag starts out at over $70,000 in the least expensive state and climbs to over $300,000 in New York. We could send each student to an Ivy League college for what we are paying to lock students up.
  • It doesn’t work. Statistics show that recidivism rates are high, and that longer incarceration does not lead to a decreased chance of reoffending when released. In fact, the opposite can be true. Being in prison disrupts a critical developmental stage of an adolescent, and often times students experience additional trauma, get further behind in school, or develop relationships with new criminal connections making students more likely to commit another crime. Although rehabilitation and preventative measures cost more money up front that we’re currently spending, it could save us billions of dollars if we can keep even a fraction of those released from prisons from returning.
juvenile justice presentation at CCBD conference
Me presenting at a the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders in Atlanta, sharing how our HOPE Mentoring program is designed to help youthful offenders stay out of prison when they’re released.

U.S. Juvenile Justice – The Ugly:

  • Drugs – Many of the incarcerated youth in the US are suffering from drug related issues. Often times they were introduced to drugs by their parents, who might be struggling with their own addiction issues, or who might use their children to try and sell or purchase more drugs. In environments where youth are surrounded by individuals who use or sell drugs, it is easy for them to become involved and once involved, much more challenging to distance themselves.
  • Sexual assault – Huge numbers of incarcerated females, and high numbers of males as well, have been victims of sexual assault either prior to incarceration, during their incarceration, or both. One in ten students report being sexually assaulted during the time they are incarcerated. Intense trauma like sexual assault can have serious effects on the decision making of an individual in ways that often get students into trouble – such as turning to drug use to cope with sexual assault, or attacking an abuser. Again, while on surface level a crime may have been committed, it becomes difficult to fault only the juveniles for their reactions to these circumstances.
  • Private prisons – Because we have prisons in the US that are for-profit, there is an incentive to keep all the beds full and numbers high, so there is a level of corruption in which some youth have been incarcerated wrongfully in schemes meant to make prison owners money. One judge was convicted recently for sending over 3,000 youth to prison without due cause because he was receiving financial benefits from the prison, in the notorious “Kids for Cash” scheme.
  • Discrimination – People of color are incarcerated at rates disproportional to their representation in the US population. This discrimination typically begins at the community level, with youth of color being arrested and incarcerated at higher rates, for lesser crimes, and longer sentences. People with a low-income are also disproportionately represented. I have often quipped that it is better to be rich and guilty in America than poor and innocent, because many innocent people in poverty don’t have the resources to afford quality representation and endure the expensive court fees it takes to defend your innocence. Watch the documentary “The 13th” for a great explanation of this issue.

My Final Thoughts on U.S. Juvenile Justice:

For a country whose motto is “Land of the free, home of the brave”, we incarcerate people at rates which suggests we don’t believe that at all. Rather, it seems to me we are very afraid – afraid that all criminals will wreak havoc in our country if we don’t lock them up forever. We are afraid that to offer help and resources to those convicted of crimes is to appear weak, and we fear that they would never change anyway. We are so fearful of the citizens whom we perceive to be criminal that we often overlook our countries problematic systems – our own policies and behaviors – that contribute to and enable our fears. Systems which victimize vulnerable populations, trapping families in cycles of crime and incarceration that trickle down through generations and are incredibly difficult to escape.

We are the land of the free, but have a quarter of the world’s prison population inside our walls. While my experience is with youth, I know youth eventually grow up to be adults who are often the same ones re-incarcerated – the trauma of their youth does not suddenly leave them when they turn 18 and adults need just as much rehabilitation. It’s on us to demand that our policy makers adjust archaic rules which victimize children and ignore what we know about their development – demand that we help rehabilitate our inmates rather than throw our money away at incarceration to prove a point to offenders. I believe that we can hold youth offenders responsible for their misdeed while nurturing them to develop the skills they need to succeed in our society – punitive actions are ineffective, inefficient, expensive, and often inhumane. We can and should do better.

Image courtesy of the Indiana Daily Student. http://www.idsnews.com/article/2015/11/editorial-a-newfound-hope

Further Readings & Resources:

  • The 13th – This is an incredible documentary on Netflix that looks at the criminal justice system in the US and traces how our current discriminatory policies have their roots in slavery.
  • Human Rights Watch – They have a whole section on juvenile justice and children’s rights with tons of great articles and reports about this issue in countries around the world.
  • Kids for Cash  – This movie tells the story of a judge who received millions of dollars for sentencing over 3,000 youth to a private prison.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – (www.aclu.org) – “For almost 100 years, the ACLU has worked to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States”.
  • Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)  – “The Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”


If you like this article, please give it a like. If you want to read more, check out the my Singapore edition of the Global Juvenile Justice series .

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