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  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 encounter 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?

  • While an estimated 2.7 million youth under the age of 18 were arrested in the United States during a single year in 1997, that number decreased by 74 percent in 2019.1
  • Though overall rates have been steadily declining over the past years, approximately 423,077 delinquency cases are adjudicated and disposed in juvenile courts annually. Fifty-two percent (220,000) of those disposed cases were adjudicated delinquent in 2018.2
  • 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 2018.3

Figure 1: Percent of Juvenile Court Involvement Charges by Type for Youth Between the Ages of 12 and 17 in 2018

Bar graph showing Percent of Juvenile Court Involvement Charges by Type for Youth Between the Ages of 12 and 17 in 2018


Data source: https://ojjdp. ojp. gov/publications/delinquency-cases-in-juvenile-court-2018. PDF (PDF, 4 pages)

Adjudicated Youth

While many youth cases do not get processed formally through the court, the majority of youth that are processed through the juvenile court are adjudicated (i. e., declared by a judge to be) delinquent, for most offenses.

  • An average of 53 percent of all petitioned cases that went to juvenile court were adjudicated delinquent in 2019. Fifty-one percent of person offenses were adjudicated delinquent, 53 percent of property offenses, 51 percent of drug offences, and 56 percent of public order offenses. 4
  • Between 1997 and 2019, the number of youth detained in residential placement decreased 50 percent to a total of 14,344, and the number of youth committed in residential placement decreased 73 percent to 21,141. The total number of youth in residential placement in 2019 was 36,479, its lowest level since the data collection began in 1997, when 105,055 youth were held in out-of-home placement. 5
  • The average state cost for the secure confinement of a young person is now $588 per day, or $214,620 per year, a 44 percent increase from 2014. These cost figures over a six-year period represent the growing economic impact of incarcerating youth. However, the long-term impact of these policies extends well beyond the fiscal cost. 6
  • Youth who are detained or incarcerated may be subject to various negative circumstances, including:
    • overcrowding
    • physical and sexual violence
    • risk of suicide
    • death7

Limiting incarceration as a punitive measure for youth when applicable has strong potential to mitigate some of these negative circumstances that occur in or are exacerbated by various out-of-home placement settings.

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.

Gender
  • Since 2006, the proportion of females remained relatively constant for arrests, delinquency cases, petitioned status cases, and youth in placement. From 2009 through 2015, the relative decline in arrests for boys and girls was the same (down 49%). 8
  • Data continue to suggest that girls are less likely to be petitioned, adjudicated, detained and/or committed in out-of-home placement than boys for most categories of delinquent offenses. 9
    • Girls in 2014 were more likely to receive diversion programming or probation than boys, who were more likely than their female counterparts to be formally petitioned and adjudicated through the court or be put in residential placement. 3
Race and Ethnicity
  • Youth of color are overrepresented within—and treated differently by—the juvenile justice system compared to their White peers.
  • Brown and Black youth are more likely to be detained and committed than non-Hispanic White youth.
  • For every 100,000 non-Hispanic Black juveniles living in the U.S., 315 were in a residential placement facility on October 23, 2019; for Hispanic youth the rate was 92, and for non-Hispanic Whites it was 72. 11

In response to significant racial and ethnic disparities present at all stages in the juvenile justice process, many states have begun implementing reforms to make the system more equitable. Recent policy suggestions for states, organizations, and community partners seeking to enact change include:

  • Forming working groups composed of juvenile justice professionals and diverse community partners to address existing racial and ethnic disparities
  • Using regular data collection and analysis at each decision point in the juvenile justice process to guide future efforts at diminishing those disparities
  • Ensuring that race and ethnicity are distinguished from each other in youth surveys for accurate data analysis
  • Developing more community-based diversion pathways and alternatives to detainment
  • Enhancing culturally/linguistically competent programs and services for youth at each stage of the justice process12

Repeated Involvement

Recidivism,6 as measured by various levels of reinvolvement with the justice system (e.g., rearrest, probation violations, reincarceration), is fairly high for youth under the age of 21. However, according to a follow-up study on previously incarcerated youth, most youth who committed serious offenses reduced their offending over time regardless of interventions, and (92%) experienced decreased or limited illegal activity during the first three years following their encounter with the juvenile justice system. The only two factors that played notable roles in rearrest rates in this seven-year study were:14

  • The presence of substance use disorder. Youth with a substance use disorder were more likely to continue to offend over the 7-year study period and less likely to spend time working or attending school than those with no substance use disorder. Youth who used substances more often and in greater quantity were more likely to be arrested than less frequent users, a pattern that did not change over time.
  • Quality services and positive experiences in institutions. The quality of youth services, the degree to which services were matched to individual youth’s needs, and a positive institutional experience and facility environment were associated with reduced rates of rearrest. These results suggest that investing in improved care and support services in facilities has potential to reduce rearrest rates and future involvement with the justice system.

Additionally, studies show that academic measures are predictive of chances of recidivism.

  • Incarcerated boys between the ages of 12-18 who have high or average academic performance while in a correctional facility are two times less likely to engage in repeated involvement with the justice system after release than those with lower academic performance who are in a remedial education group while in a facility. 15
  • In a study of more than 4,000 juveniles released from secure facilities in Florida, youth with above average academic performance during the time they were confined were more likely to return to school upon release than their lower-performing peers, a notable finding given the fact that above average attendance in school serves as a protective factor against being arrested. 16

Educational Status and Outcomes

Many youth who encounter the juvenile justice system have experienced academic failure, disengagement from school, and/or school disciplinary challenges. Academic outcomes for these youth are generally less positive than those of youth who do not encounter the system, suggesting that academic interventions may be a strong avenue for serving youth at risk of entering the juvenile justice 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. 17
  • 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. 18
  • Many incarcerated youth are marginally literate or illiterate and have already experienced school failure. 19
  • Many youth who are incarcerated have a history of truancy and grade retention (repeating a grade due to failing the previous year). 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. 20Youth with high truancy who later get funneled into the juvenile justice system are also more likely to have received special education services than their peers who had strong school attendance. 21
  • Exclusionary discipline practices such as expulsion or suspension significantly increase a student’s likelihood of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system rather than mitigating delinquent behaviors. Alternative disciplinary measures that do not remove at-risk students from the school setting prove more beneficial for youth. 22

Considering the substantial correlation between academic failure and/or truancy and involvement with the juvenile justice system, academic interventions and truancy reduction programs provide promise for improving youth outcomes.

Mental Health and Substance Use

Youth involved with the juvenile justice system often have mental health23 and/or substance use disorders. These typically affect their academic performance, behavior, and relationships with peers and adults.

  • Studies point to a significant overrepresentation of youth with mental health disorders in the juvenile justice system, with a high percentage of youth (approximately 70 percent) involved in the system having a diagnosable mental health disorder and nearly 30 percent of those experiencing severe mental health disorders. 24
    • About two thirds of youth in detention or correctional settings have at least one diagnosable mental health disorder, compared with an estimated 9 to 22 percent of the general youth population. 25
  • Many youth in the juvenile justice system have a history of trauma and ensuing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders which are all correlated with later delinquency and/or involvement in the system. 26 Particularly, adolescents who witnessed or were survivors of violence are more likely to be charged with a violent crime against another individual later.
    • Academic progress and high academic performance weaken this relationship between early violence-related trauma and juvenile justice involvement, serving as a protective factor against involvement with the juvenile justice system. 27
  • Youth in contact with the juvenile justice system experience higher prevalence rates for various categories of mental disorders than their peers. In addition to experiencing a high prevalence of disruptive disorders, the most common mental health challenge for these youth is substance use disorder (76 percent), followed by high anxiety (33 percent), ADHD (14 percent), depression (12 percent), posttraumatic stress disorder (12 percent), and mania (7 percent). 28
  • Most youth in the system meet the criteria for or are diagnosed with more than one mental health disorder. 29
  • Many court-involved adolescents have recently used illegal substances. The adolescents who perpetrate more serious and chronic offenses have been found to use more substances and are more likely to qualify for a diagnosis of a substance use disorder. 30
  • Between 2005 and 2018, drug law violations among youth decreased by 44 percent. 31
  • Higher levels of substance use increase the rate of offending, the severity of the committed offense, and the duration of antisocial behavior. 32

Despite the exceedingly high proportion of youth within the juvenile justice system who experience mental health disorders, referral rates for mental health treatment within justice facilities remain low.33

Targeted trainings for juvenile correctional facility professionals regarding mental health screening and treatment referrals would point more youth toward the necessary treatment for their unique needs. Particularly, mental health diversion initiatives and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which helps patients adjust their thinking and behavior patterns have shown positive results in reducing delinquency and recidivism among justice-involved youth.34

 

Resources for Justice-Involved Youth and Their Families

Respect Youth Stories: A Toolkit for Advocates to Ethically Engage in Youth Justice Storytelling (PDF, 15 pages)
The National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) and its member organization Citizens for Juvenile Justice (CfJJ) partnered with youth to create the following toolkit. The toolkit assists advocacy organizations in establishing ethical and youth-informed practices for facilitating young people sharing their stories in public, including through the press, legislative testimony, digital media, publications, or panel discussions. The toolkit aims to help young people understand their right to establish boundaries while sharing their experiences in public.

Improving Outcomes for Youth with Disabilities in Juvenile Corrections
This toolkit includes evidence- and research-based practices, tools, and resources that educators, families, facilities, and community agencies can use to better support and improve the long-term outcomes for youth with disabilities in juvenile correctional facilities. The toolkit focuses on four key areas of juvenile corrections: facility-wide practices, educational practices, transition and re-entry practices, and community and interagency practices.

Model Programs Guide: Substance Abuse
The Model Programs Guide contains evidence-based juvenile justice and youth prevention, intervention, and reentry programs. Each program is rated either effective, promising, or no effect. Users can search the database for programs and interventions based on the age range of the child or young adult or can use other search filters to search for programs addressing substance use.

National Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent, or At-Risk (NDTAC)
This website serves as an information hub, technical assistance center, resource for program evaluation and data reporting, and a facilitator of information and peer-to-peer learning in relation to educational programming for youth who are neglected, delinquent, or at-risk of entering the juvenile justice system. Users can access webinars and conferences on the site and explore resources for parents, families, and service providers for neglected or delinquent youth.

Roadmap to Behavioral Health—A Guide to Using Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Services (PDF, 25 pages)
This guide can help people understand how to use health insurance coverage to improve their mental and physical health. It provides an eight-step road map for understanding behavioral health, finding and accessing appropriate providers, and staying on the road to recovery.

Transition Toolkit 3.0: Meeting the Educational Needs of Youth Exposed to the Juvenile Justice System (PDF, 60 pages)
This report provides five guiding principles recommended by the federal government to provide high-quality education to youth in juvenile justice secure settings. The suggested principles create environments conducive to teaching, learning, social-emotional supports, and positive educational outcomes for youth that lessen likelihood to reenter the justice system.

Vulnerable Population: Incarcerated Youth
For youth, parents, community members, or practitioners who need a starting point to familiarize themselves with the juvenile justice system and processes, this fact sheet may be a good place to start. It provides basic definitions and fast facts as well as links to various government reports and publications focusing on the juvenile justice system.

You Got This! Educational Pathways for Youth Transitioning from Juvenile Justice Facilities (PDF, 12 pages)
This guide offers a framework of tips and resources for youth transitioning from the juvenile justice system back into their schools and communities. It informs youth and professionals working closely with incarcerated youth of juveniles’ rights both within the system and at school and includes a roadmap of juvenile detention to school re-enrollment, a re-enrollment checklist, community resources and organizations, a student bill of rights, and more.

Resources for Community Partners

Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement, 1997-2019
This database allows users to view and analyze statistics on nearly every cross-section of youth populations present in residential placement over the span of 22 years. Developed to facilitate analysis of national data on delinquent youth held in these out-of-home facilities, this website provides yearly information on youth demographics and characteristics, including sex, race/ethnicity, age, length of stay in residential placement, nature of offense, and more.

Fact Sheet Template: Complex Trauma in Juvenile Justice-Involved Youth (PDF, 7 pages)
This fact sheet contains a detailed description of the path from complex trauma exposure to involvement in the juvenile justice system. The source also provides recommendations for judges and juvenile justice program administrators, parents and family members, and adults who supervise youth regarding how to best serve and understand justice-involved youth.

Intersection between Mental Health and the Juvenile Justice System (PDF, 13 pages)
This literature review focuses on the scope of mental health challenges of at-risk and justice-involved youth, the impact of mental health on justice involvement as well as the impact of justice involvement on mental health, and disparities in mental health treatment in the juvenile justice system. Evidence-based programs that have been shown to improve outcomes for youth with mental health issues are explored.

Education for Youth Under Formal Supervision of the Juvenile Justice System (PDF, 18 pages)
This literature review discusses the intersection of the educational and the juvenile justice systems. It outlines the academic characteristics and challenges of youth in the juvenile justice system (including those in detention and long-term secure residential facilities, and under probation supervision) and interventions aimed at improving educational outcomes for this high-risk population.

Model Programs Guide: Substance Abuse
The Model Programs Guide is an online resource of evidence-based juvenile justice and youth prevention, intervention, and reentry programs. Each program is rated either effective, promising, or no effect. Users can search the database for programs and interventions based on the age range of the child or young adult or can use other search filters to find programs addressing substance use.

Preventing Child Abuse & Neglect
This webpage features a list of resources related to child abuse prevention, protecting children from risk of abuse, and strengthening families.

Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent, or At-Risk (NDTAC)
This website serves as an information hub, technical assistance center, resource for program evaluation and data reporting, and a facilitator of information and peer-to-peer learning in relation to educational programming for youth who are neglected, delinquent, or at-risk of entering the juvenile justice system. Users can access webinars and conferences on the site and explore resources for parents, families, and service providers for neglected or delinquent youth.

Resources for Practitioners

Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Racial and Ethnic Minority Youth: A Guide for Practitioners (PDF, 28 pages)
This guide addresses reasons for differences in mental health etiology and outcomes among youth. While some racial and ethnic minority youth experience lower rates of lifetime mental health disorders, their disorders tend to have a more chronic course.

Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach (PDF, 27 pages)
This paper introduces SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and offers a framework for how an organization, system, or service sector can become trauma informed by integrating the perspectives of researchers, practitioners, and people with experience of trauma.

Practical Tips for Juvenile Drug Treatment Courts to Implement (PDF, 13 pages)
This guide describes the objectives outlined in OJJDP’s Juvenile Drug Treatment Guidelines (PDF, 60 pages) and provides suggested short-term and long-term actions related to each objective. Juvenile drug treatment courts can use this information to guide the implementation, operation, and evaluation of their practices.

Child Abuse Training for Judicial and Court Personnel
This project trains judicial, legal, and social service professionals to improve their response in child abuse and neglect cases. It also teaches practitioners how to coordinate information and services across the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

In Focus: Children's Advocacy Centers (PDF, 1 page)
This brief details the important work of children's advocacy centers and their multidisciplinary teams of child abuse prevention and intervention professionals.

Tool Kit for Creating Your Own Truancy Reduction Program (PDF, 229 pages)
This toolkit provides a comprehensive analysis of the causes of truancy, the extent of the issue, evaluation measures for truancy reduction programs and barriers to accurate progress measurement, as well as best practices for managing truancy reduction among youth.

Understanding Child Trauma
This infographic provides key statistics and information to help the public recognize the signs of child traumatic stress. This infographic can be downloaded as a whole or by the three key subject areas and is available in English and Spanish.

Wraparound Process Literature Review (PDF, 7 pages)
This literature review explains how the wraparound process addresses gaps that delinquent youth with severe emotional and behavioral disorders previously experienced in the justice system, provides ten key principles of the wraparound process, and describes positive impacts of such programming.

References

1 Puzzanchera, 2021
2 Hockenberry, 2020
3 Hockenberry, 2020
4 Puzzanchera & Hockenberry, 2021
5 Puzzanchera, 2021; Hockenberry, 2020
6 Justice Policy Institute, 2020
7 Sickmund, M. & Puzzanchera, C., 2014
8 Ehrmann, Hyland & Puzzanchera, 2019
9 Ehrmann, Hyland & Puzzanchera, 2019
10 Puzzanchera & Ehrmann, 2018
11 Department of Justice, 2021
12 National Juvenile Justice Network, 2014
13 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.
14 Sickmund & Puzzanchera, 2014
15 Archwamety & Katsiyannis, 2000; Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2019
16 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2019; Blomberg, Bales & Piquero, 2012
17 Sedlak & McPherson, 2010; Hovey, Zolkoski & Bullock, 2017
18 Leone & Weinberg, 2010
19 Krezmien & Mulcahy, 2008
20 Balfanz, Spiridakis, Neild, & Legters, 2003
21 Zhang et al., 2010
22 Gerlinger et al., 2021
23 Although there is a clear and strong correlation between mental health disorders and involvement in the juvenile justice system, a causal relationship cannot be determined between the two based on existing research. It is unclear which factor may be the precipitator for the other, or if such a causal relationship even exists.
24 Skowyra & Cocozza, 2007; Meservey & Skowyra, 2015; Teplin et al., 2013; Development Services Group, Inc., 2017
25 Schubert & Mulvey 2014; Schubert, Mulvey, & Glasheen 2011; Development Services Group, Inc., 2017
26 Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice, 2006; Felitti et al., 1998; and Quinn, Rutherford, & Leone, 2001
27 Wyrick & Atkinson, 2021
28 Schubert, Mulvey, & Glasheen, 2011; Schubert & Mulvey, 2014
29 Schubert, Mulvey, & Glasheen, 2011; Teplin et al., 2013; Development Services Group, Inc., 2017
30 Mulvey, Schubert, & Chassin, 2010
31 Hockenberry & Puzzanchera, 2021
32 Young, Dembo, & Henderson, 2007
33 Developmental Services Group, 2017
34 Developmental Services Group, 2017; Jeong, Lee, & Martin, 2014; Colwell, Villarreal, & Espinosa, 2012

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Youth who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and especially young adults of transition age, should be involved in planning for life after high school as early as possible and no later than age 16. Transition services should stem from the individual youth’s needs and strengths, ensuring that planning takes into account his or her interests, preferences, and desires for the future.

Youth Transitioning to Adulthood: How Holding Early Leadership Positions Can Make a Difference

Research links early leadership with increased self-efficacy and suggests that leadership can help youth to develop decision making and interpersonal skills that support successes in the workforce and adulthood. In addition, young leaders tend to be more involved in their communities, and have lower dropout rates than their peers. Youth leaders also show considerable benefits for their communities, providing valuable insight into the needs and interests of young people

How Trained Service Professionals and Self-Advocacy Makes a Difference for Youth with Mental Health, Substance Abuse, or Co-occurring Issues

Statistics reflecting the number of youth suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders highlight the necessity for schools, families, support staff, and communities to work together to develop targeted, coordinated, and comprehensive transition plans for young people with a history of mental health needs and/or substance abuse.

Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions

Nearly 30,000 youth aged out of foster care in Fiscal Year 2009, which represents nine percent of the young people involved in the foster care system that year. This transition can be challenging for youth, especially youth who have grown up in the child welfare system.

Coordinating Systems to Support Transition Age Youth with Mental Health Needs

Research has demonstrated that as many as one in five children/youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Read about how coordination between public service agencies can improve treatment for these youth.

Civic Engagement Strategies for Transition Age Youth

Civic engagement has the potential to empower young adults, increase their self-determination, and give them the skills and self-confidence they need to enter the workforce. Read about one youth’s experience in AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).