Youth Incarceration Dropped 40 Percent, But Most Still Detained For Minor Offenses

Since, the criminalization of child discipline spiked the rate of juvenile detention to an all-time high in 2000, reforms in several states have facilitated a 39-percent percent drop in the rate of locking up kids, according to a new report. The drop reflects a recognition that widespread detention of children was not only costing the states money in detention centers; it also leads to lower rates of educational attainment and employment, and higher rates of later criminal activity.

The report by the National Juvenile Justice Network and Texas Public Policy Foundation highlights nine states that have seen dramatic turnarounds in detention rates, several of which were the most notorious for soaring prison populations, tough-on-crime policies, and the criminalization of minor school discipline violations.

Mississippi, for example, saw one the most dramatic decreases in juvenile lock-ups between 2001 and late 2010–48 percent — likely thanks in part to prominent reports on abuse of the system. But recent reports and a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice show that particular counties are still plagued by harsh punishment for minor disciplinary violations like not wearing a belt to school. Texas also saw a drop, but one of the largest school districts in the country continues to use an electronic computer system to charge students with crimes, according to a recent lawsuit.

This continuing skew toward criminalizing student discipline is reflected in other statistics in the report. Nationwide as of 2010, “almost 60 percent of confined youth in the U.S. (41,877) were still detained and imprisoned for offenses that do not pose substantial threats to public safety. These include misdemeanors, drug use, non-criminal or status offenses (e.g., curfew violations, truancy, running away), failure to show up for parole meetings, and breaking school rules. Arguably, those 42,000 or so low-risk youth, who pose minimal public safety risks, face a fairly high risk of recidivating and losing their futures as productive citizens due to their incarceration experiences.”


A new quantitative analysis confirms that detaining more youths makes the crime rate worse. What’s more, the impact of criminalizing student discipline is not limited to detention. Students may be arrested, charged and even convicted for school disciplinary violations without spending time in jail, while discriminatory suspensions provide a frequent entrée into the criminal justice system.