Mass Incarceration Starts at 12 Years Old

The United States has many ways to confine young people accused of breaking the law. We keep young people in juvenile detention centers, in strict long-term secure facilities, in residential treatment centers, in group homes, and in adult prisons and jails.


According to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative, nearly 53,000 young people are held in facilities like these every day. Nearly one in ten confined young people are held in adult prisons and jails—a situation that poses clear safety risks to young people.

In many ways, the problems facing young people entering the criminal justice system mirror those facing adults:

  • One in five youths locked up in juvenile facilities—or more than 9,000 young people—have not been found guilty or delinquent, but are being held awaiting a hearing.
  • More than 4,000 young people are being held in confinement not for crimes, but for low-level technical violations or status offenses—behavior that is legal for adults, but illegal for youths’ due to their status as minors adults (for example, truancy or running away from home).
  • PPI estimates that “almost 17,000 youths charged with low-level offenses could be released today without great risk to public safety.” These include status offenses, drug offenses, public order offenses, and technical violations.
  • Racial disparities persist in the youth detainment complex. While black boys and girls make up less than 14 percent of all youth in the United States, nearly half of boys in juvenile facilities and more than a third of girls in juvenile facilities are black. Native American boys and girls also make up a disproportionate share of confined youth.
  • Young people held in strict “long-term secure facilities” face treatment most Americans would find appalling. They are treated like criminals, held behind razor wire fences, punished with pepper spray and mechanical restraints, and locked up in solitary confinement.
  • More than 500 children in confinement are 12 years old or younger.

It is shameful that the United States treats its young people—its black boys and girls in particular—as hardened criminals, especially during a crucial stage of development. The youth prison industrial complex is a blight in need of eradication.


Read more about our supremely messed up youth detention system in Prison Policy Initiative’s full report.

Senior politics reporter at Splinter.

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