Why Youth Incarceration Fails: An Updated Review of the Evidence


Though the number of youth confined nationwide has declined significantly over the past two decades, our country still incarcerates far too many young people.

It does so despite overwhelming evidence showing that incarceration is an ineffective strategy for steering youth away from delinquent behavior and that high rates of youth incarceration do not improve public safety. Incarceration harms young people’s physical and mental health, impedes their educational and career success, and often exposes them to abuse. And the use of confinement is plagued by severe racial and ethnic disparities.

This publication summarizes the evidence documenting the serious problems associated with the youth justice system’s continuing heavy reliance on incarceration and makes recommendations for reducing the use of confinement. It begins by describing recent incarceration trends in the youth justice system. This assessment finds that the sizable drop in juvenile facility populations since 2000 is due largely to a substantial decline in youth arrests nationwide, not to any shift toward other approaches by juvenile courts or corrections agencies once youth enter the justice system. Most youth who are incarcerated in juvenile facilities are not charged with serious violent offenses, yet the United States continues to confine youth at many times the rates of other nations. And it continues to inflict the harms of incarceration disproportionately on Black youth and other youth of color – despite well-established alternatives that produce better outcomes for youth and community safety.

Incarceration Produces Counterproductive Outcomes

Part 1 of the report reviews the research on the outcomes of youth incarceration. The evidence reveals these key findings:

Incarceration does not reduce delinquent behavior. State-level data on recidivism consistently show that youth who are released from correctional confinement experience high rates of rearrest, new adjudications (in juvenile court) or convictions (in adult court), and reincarceration. Studies that track youth outcomes into adulthood have found that an alarming share of young people incarcerated in youth correctional facilities are later arrested, convicted, and incarcerated as adults. Research studies that control for young people’s backgrounds, offending histories and other relevant characteristics have found that confinement most often results in higher rates of rearrest and reincarceration compared with probation and other community alternatives to confinement. Data show that large declines in youth incarceration do not result in increases in youth crime.

Research also shows that the initial decision to incarcerate youth in secure detention facilities pending their court adjudication hearings (akin to trials in adult criminal court) substantially increases the odds that they will become further involved in the justice system. Pre-trial detention greatly increases the odds that youth will be placed in residential custody if a court finds them delinquent, and spending time in detention increases the likelihood that youth will be arrested and punished for subsequent offenses. Numerous research studies have found that once youth are incarcerated, longer stays in custody lead to increased recidivism.

Incarceration impedes young people’s success in education and employment. A number of studies show that incarceration makes it less likely that young people will graduate high school. The school re-enrollment rates of youth returning home from juvenile facilities are low. Studies find that incarceration in juvenile facilities also reduces college enrollment and completion and lowers employment and earnings in adulthood.

Incarceration does lasting damage to young people’s health and wellbeing. Studies find that incarceration during adolescence leads to poorer health in adulthood. This damage exacerbates the serious health problems experienced by many of the youth who enter juvenile detention and corrections facilities. Young people entering youth correctional facilities suffer disproportionately from many physical health challenges (such as dental, vision, or hearing problems, as well as acute illnesses and injuries), and they are far more likely to have mental health problems such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts. Incarceration in juvenile justice facilities is associated with shorter life expectancy.


Comments are closed.