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  1. Youth Topics
  2. Juvenile Justice
  3. Youth Involved with the Juvenile Justice System

Youth Involved with the Juvenile Justice System

Some children and youth become involved with the juvenile justice system because they are accused of committing a delinquent or criminal act. Other youth come into contact with the system for status offenses—actions that are illegal only because of a youth’s age—such as truancy, underage drinking, and running away from home. Not all of these cases, however, are formally processed through the courts.

What do we know about youth involved in the juvenile justice system?

  • During a single year, an estimated 2.1 million youth under the age of 18 are arrested in the United States.1
  • Though overall rates have been declining over the past years, approximately 1.7 million delinquency cases are disposed in juvenile courts annually.2
  • Youth are referred to the juvenile justice system for different types of offenses. Figure 1 illustrates the percent of referrals based on the types of offenses for youth between the ages of 12 and 17 in 2008.3

Figure 1: Percent of Juvenile Court Involvement Charges by Type for Youth Between the Ages of 12 and 17 in 2008

Percent of Juvenile Court Involvement Charges by Type for Youth Between the Ages of 12 and 17 in 2008

Note: Figure adapted from Sickmund, M., Sladky, A., and Kang, W. (2011). "Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics: 1985-2008." Retrieved from http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezajcs/
Data source: National Center for Juvenile Justice.  National Juvenile Court Data Archive: Juvenile court case records 1985-2008 [machine-readable data files]. Pittsburgh, PA: NCJJ [producer].

  • For some offenses, largely violent offenses, states process juvenile offenders in adult court. This occurs in less than one percent of all petitioned cases and the numbers are decreasing—down to 8,900 youth in 2008 from a high of 13,700 youth in 1994.4

Adjudicated Youth

The majority of youth processed through the juvenile court are adjudicated (i.e., declared by a judge to be) delinquent, for most offenses.

  • Approximately 57 percent of adjudicated youth are placed on probation.5
  • Approximately 86,900 youth under the age of 21 are detained or confined in public and private detention centers, group homes, camps, ranches, and other correctional institutions.6
  • The average cost per youth is $240.99 per day based on the state-funded, post-adjudication residential facilities in which 70 percent of adjudicated youth reside.7
  • Youth who are detained or incarcerated may be subject to various negative circumstances, including
    • overcrowding;
    • physical and sexual violence;
    • trauma;
    • risk of suicide; and
    • death.8

Gender, Race, and Ethnicity

Considerable variability by gender and deep disparities by race and ethnicity exist in both pre-adjudication detention and post-adjudication residential placement.


  • Girls are the fastest growing population entering the juvenile justice system today.
  • Data continues to suggest that girls are less likely to be detained and committed than boys for most categories of delinquent offenses.

Race and Ethnicity

  • Minority youth are overrepresented within—and treated differently by—the juvenile justice system compared to their white peers.
  • Minority youth are more likely to be detained and committed than non-Hispanic whites.
  • African-American youth have the highest rates of involvement compared to other racial groups. They make up 16 percent of all youth in the general population, but 30 percent of juvenile court referrals, 38 percent of youth in residential placement, and 58 percent of youth admitted to state adult prison.9

Repeated Involvement

Recidivism,10as measured by various levels of reinvolvement with the justice system (e.g., rearrest, probation violations, reincarceration, etc.), is fairly high for youth under the age of 21. Based on studies of juveniles released from state incarceration, rearrest rates were substantially higher than other measures of recidivism. Across studies with a 12-month follow-up period, the average rate of rearrest for a delinquent or criminal offense was 55 percent, the average reconviction or readjudication rate was 33 percent, and the average reincarceration or reconfinement rate was 24 percent.11

Educational Status and Outcomes

Many youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system have experienced academic failure, disengagement from school, and/or school disciplinary problems. Academic outcomes for these youth are generally less positive than those of youth who do not come into contact with the system.

  • Nearly half of all students who enter residential juvenile justice facilities have an academic achievement level that is below the grade equivalent for their age.12
  • Youth in the juvenile justice system are identified as eligible for special education services at three to seven times the rate of youth outside the system.13
  • Many incarcerated youth are marginally literate or illiterate and have already experienced school failure. 14
  • Many youth who are incarcerated have a history of truancy and grade retention. A study of more than 400 incarcerated ninth-graders found that, in the year prior to incarceration, these students had attended school barely half the time and were failing most of their courses.15
  • When a student is suspended or expelled, there is a significant increase in his or her likelihood of being involved in the juvenile justice system the subsequent year.16

Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Youth involved with the juvenile justice system often have mental health and/or substance abuse problems. These typically affect their academic performance, behavior, and relationships with peers and adults.

  • A high percentage of youth (65 to 70 percent) involved with the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder and nearly 30 percent of those experience severe mental health disorders.17
  • A large number of youth in the juvenile justice system have a history of trauma, emotional, and behavioral problems.18
  • Youth in contact with the juvenile justice system experience higher prevalence rates across various types of mental health disorders. Disruptive disorders, such as conduct disorders and substance use disorders, are most common (46.5 percent); followed by anxiety disorders (34.4 percent); and mood disorders (18.3 percent), such as depression. 19
  • Most youth in the system meet the criteria for or are diagnosed with more than one mental health disorder. 20
  • A majority of court-involved adolescents have recently used illegal substances. The more serious and chronic adolescent offenders have been found to use more substances and are more likely to qualify for a diagnosis of a substance use disorder.21
  • While juvenile arrests for most offenses declined between 1994 and 2003, the rate of arrests for drug abuse violations increased. The increase was far greater among females than males.22
  • Higher levels of substance use increase the rate of offending, the severity of the committed offense, and the duration of antisocial behavior.23


1 Puzzanchera, 2009
2 Puzzanchera, Adams, & Sickmund, 2011
3 Sickmund, Sladky, & Kang, 2011
4 Puzzanchera & Kang, 2011
5 Sickmund, Sladky, Kang, & Puzzanchera, 2008
6 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2007
7 American Correctional Association, 2008
8 Snyder & Sickmund, 2006
9 Piquero, 2008
10 Accurately estimating a nation-wide recidivism rate is very difficult because jurisdictions do not use the same measures to define it and great variance exists, depending on what is measured.
11 Snyder & Sickmund, 2006
12 Sedlak & McPherson, 2010
13 Leone & Weinberg, 2010
14 Leone, Meisal, & Drakeford, 2002
15 Balfanz, Spiridakis, Neild, & Legters, 2003
16 Fabelo et al., 2011
17 Skowyra & Cocozza, 2007
18Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice, 2006; Felitti et al., 1998; and Quinn, Rutherford, & Leone, 2001
19 Shufelt & Cocozza, 2006
20 Shufelt & Cocozza, 2006
21 Mulvey, Schubert, & Chassin, 2010
22 Young, Dembo, & Henderson, 2007
23 Young, Dembo, & Henderson, 2007

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