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Number of Incarcerated Juveniles Fell to All-Time Low in 2020

The number of children incarcerated in juvenile prisons across the U.S. fell to an all-time low in 2020, the latest year of available federal data, fueling proponents’ hopes of entirely eliminating those detention centers, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange reports. The decline in incarcerations came as juvenile arrests have also dropped for most crimes except murder, which have been on the rise in recent years. Against that backdrop, an increasing number of states have closed juvenile prisons, diverting that funding to alternative placements in the community, such as group homes or home confinement, and programs that provide rehabilitative and wraparound social services.  “It’s not just a jail break,” said Vincent Schiraldi, a former commissioner of New York City’s probation and correction departments, who supports these alternatives.


Advocates of closing prisons for juveniles and investing in community-based rehabilitation for that population said the transition won’t be easy. At least in the short run, it can be more expensive, Schiraldi said. In some states, alternatives have been slow to emerge, or they may closely resemble the facilities they are intended to replace. Fueling the downward trend of juvenile incarceration rates — in addition to lower crime and arrest rates — several studies have linked being incarcerated as a youth with poorer physical and mental outcomes later in life, including increased risk of substance abuse and incarceration as an adult. Even as arrest rates plummet, children of color continue to be disproportionately locked in these facilities. “These systems cause an enormous amount of damage,” Schiraldi said. Youth prisons limit children’s educational opportunities and many experience violence, sexual assault and mental and physical trauma, he said.

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