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Youth Detention in U.S. 'Vastly Understated,' Advocates Say

The U.S. incarcerates a high number of children and adolescents every year, at least 240,000 cases in 2019. Disproportionately, they are youth of color. Youth incarceration is typically measured via a one-day count taken in late October, which vastly understates its footprint. At least 80 percent of incarcerated youth are excluded from the one-day count, The Sentencing Project says in a new report.

This undercount is most prevalent for detained youth, who have been arrested but have yet to face a court hearing.

The Sentencing Project says that thirty-one youths charged with drug offenses are detained for each one measured in the one-day count, 25 charged with public order offenses are detained for each one measured in the one-day count, 17 charged with property offenses are detained for each one measured in the one-day count, and 11 youths charged with offenses against people are detained for each one measured in the one-day count

A decade-long drop in detention and commitment to custody masks how common detention remains for youth with legal issues, the report says. Hundreds of thousands of youth are referred to juvenile courts annually; about one fourth of the time, they are detained. The proportion detained has risen over a decade in which arrests have declined dramatically.

Data on youth detentions and commitment show sharp racial and ethnic disparities. Youth of color encounter police more often than their white peers and are disproportionately arrested despite modest differences in behavior that cannot explain the extent of arrest disparities.

Disparities in incarceration start with arrests but grow at each point of contact along the justice system continuum. When youth of color are arrested, they are more likely to be detained than their white peers.

The report calls on state legislators to end the detention of young people except in circumstances where public safety is at risk


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