Locking Up Youth – Bad Policy, Bad Practice


Photo credit: David Y. Lee for Public Welfare Foundation

At the age of 15, Bruce was arrested and charged with robbery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He had never been in trouble before and still insists that he did not rob anyone. But he says that the police officers who questioned him threatened to arrest his younger brother, who was then 13.

At the time of the alleged incident, Bruce’s brother was not with him, but he was later brought to the police station where Bruce was being interrogated.

“I was telling them I didn’t do anything, until they said they would arrest my brother,” Bruce, now 23, recalled recently. “I just didn’t want my brother getting in trouble.”

Bruce, who had grown up in foster care, said, “I was being protective of my younger brother…because he was the only family I had.”

His protective instincts prompted Bruce to take a deal to go into a youth placement facility. The term was supposed to be nine to twelve months, and Bruce’s public defender suggested he could get out sooner. But, ultimately, he spent about 16 months in a private, staff-secure facility in the Pittsburgh area that was difficult for his foster parents or his brother to visit.

Beyond the disillusionment that he spent more time in the facility than he thought he would, Bruce also felt that his 16-month stay was a waste. Once a promising student, he felt like he was spinning his wheels at the facility and that many of the classes he took were “repetitive” and not tailored to the residents’ ages and abilities.

“The longer I was there, the more I felt like I was not making any progress,” he recalled.

Although national youth incarceration rates have declined significantly in recent years and many states have passed reforms to keep more youth out of facilities, the United States still places more young people in secure confinement than any other country in the world, according to a 2013 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

And a national snapshot by the Office of Youth Justice Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice shows that, on any given night in 2011, about 60,000 youth were held in secure confinement.

Approximately one-third had been held for more than six months. And about half of the youth held that long were in placement for property offenses, drug offenses, technical probation violations, and status offenses – not for offenses against another person. Yet it is well documented that many youth are subjected to beatings, isolation in solitary confinement, or other horrors while in secure facilities, and that such facilities yield high rates of recidivism.

As momentum grows around the country to rethink the juvenile justice system’s use of incarceration, youth advocates are seeking more immediately to reduce admissions at existing facilities and reduce the amount of time – or length of stay – that a youth spends incarcerated.

The Public Welfare Foundation has supported the Juvenile Law Center, which is based in Philadelphia, in bringing together researchers and conducting interviews with stakeholders around the country to explore how research on length of stay could be better reflected in practices and policies. The result of those meetings and interviews is a recently released report, Ten Strategies to Reduce Juvenile Length of Stay

According to the report, “The research is clear: regardless of the type of offense, placement in a juvenile facility beyond six months is largely ineffective at reducing recidivism, and may often be harmful to youth…Moreover, almost all evidence-based and evidence-informed services can be provided without lengthy institutional stays. Indeed, many of the most effective practices must take place in the home or community to build on a young person’s systems of support. While many such community-based practices are typically used to prevent placement, they can also be used as a component of reentry that reduces length of stay.”

Many states allow youth to be kept in secure facilities for as long as two years and only Idaho has a law that prevents stays that are longer than six months.

As the report notes, youth may get ‘stuck’ in placement for long periods of time, “because of the type of offense, because of their particular needs, or because of a lack of community resources, or for other reasons.” Youth most likely to be held for long periods include those with mental health problems, girls, youth adjudicated for sex-related offenses, and youth in private for-profit facilities.

Among the report’s recommended strategies for officials to keep kids from being locked up for long periods of time – and certainly longer than necessary:

More aggressive adoption of the strategies outlined in the Juvenile Law Center report could help many more youth who end up in secure placements.

As Jessica Feierman, supervising attorney at JLC and lead author of the report observed, “When we expose young people to lengthy stays in secure facilities, we pull them away from their families, communities, and schools. We put them in environments that are stressful, even traumatic. Research shows that this approach just doesn’t work. Placement tends to derail, rather than assist, young people.”

Bruce’s time in a special facility was certainly a detour, but he is trying to get back on track. After the credits he thought he had accumulated in placement were not accepted back in Philadelphia, he dropped out of school for a while, but then went back and finally graduated from high school. He has been a participant in JLC’s Juveniles for Justice Youth Advocates program, which offers youth who have been involved in the juvenile justice system a year-long opportunity to assess the system’s strengths and weaknesses and develop and implement advocacy projects to improve the system.

For the longer term, Bruce has also taken culinary classes and some medical-related classes and is aiming to become certified as a medical technician.


The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.

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