Criminal Justice Trends: Juveniles in Jail

black Image of scales on white background with the words, "calibrate the scales" overlaid. As with any set of scales, the scales of justice must, from time to time, be recalibrated. Total balance is never achieved, but all in the criminal justice and legal systems must strive for it as much as possible.

Juveniles in jail is becoming a serious issue in America. States continue to push the bounds of justice by remanding children to adult court–then to adult prisons. In some cases, children as young as eight-years of age have been sentenced as adults. 

Increasingly, juveniles are being charged as adults, which begs the questions,

“How can a person be both adult and child?”


“What can society expect from treating children as adults before they are such?”

The opening words of the United States’ Constitution states in simple language that one purpose of government is to promote peace and tranquility among its people; the Criminal Justice system plays a large role in determining the degree to which this goal is met.  Juvenile justice plays a large role in the attainment of this goal, for young people become either responsible or irresponsible adults.

Hence, ensuring that juveniles are dealt with in a way that reduces recidivism should be a vital element in the modern Criminal Justice system.  Considered here are the trends regarding juveniles in jail as of 2013 which reveal that the United States is failing in this area.

Trends in Juvenile Justice: Juveniles in Jail

Among the numerous trends in Juvenile Criminal Justice, two stand out as certain factors impacting the American goal of peace and tranquility:  Juvenile jurisdictional Transfers and education.

The first trend, transfers of juveniles to adult courts,  stems from the “get tough” approach of the 1990s when crime rates had risen to alarming levels and a large portion of the population daily lived in fear of becoming a victim.

In an effort to curb growing juvenile crime, many states and the Federal government increased the likelihood that a juvenile will face adult charges, rather than juvenile court (Ely, 2008). Because the laws which made it possible to easily transfer juveniles for the slightest of offenses, juveniles in jail continues to be an increasing element of today’s criminal justice system.

The second trend involves the basic education of youths incarcerated in adult facilities.  Adult Correctional facilities were not designed to provide education to young people and are proving inadequate.  This could have serious consequences in the future, as the only education most youths will receive in an adult correctional facility involves improved criminal behaviors (Ely, 2008).

Juvenile Justice Transfers

Transfers to Adult Court from the Juvenile Criminal Justice system are not new; what is new is the degree to which suchb juvenile transferrs to the adult courts are now used.

This is a chart showing trends in the expendit...
This is a chart showing trends in the expenditures on crime by criminal justice function from 1982-2001. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are three ways that such transfers occur and in each method, the increases have been substantial.  Judicial transfers, once rare, have increased as more judges are willing to relieve some of their workload by sending serious offenses to another jurisdiction.

Prosecutors also have the ability in most States to remand a juvenile to Adult Court and, for mostly political reasons, this is done with increasing frequency.  Finally, States continue to increase the numbers and kinds of offenses for which a juvenile can face adult charges (Paul, 2007; Champion, 2010). Thus, the number of juveniles in adult prisons/jails is increasing and continuing at an alarming rate.

Juvenile Incarceration Rates

As a result of transfers, remand, and changes in law, the number of juveniles sent to adult correctional facilities increased over 200% between 1990 and 2005 (Ely, 2008).  However, these figures must also be taken in context, for the actual numbers remain quite small.  In fact, one study showed that although the increase was considerable in terms of percentages, in terms of actual figures, juveniles held in Adult jails remains less than 2% (OJJDP, 2010).

Taking further steps in context, it also must be remembered that any change today that has a negative impact on the system and society will be amplified in future years.  Hence, there is wisdom in considering whether this increase if helpful or harmful to the Criminal Justice system and society.  Thus it is necessary to understand whether such changes add to or promote the peace and tranquility of America or not.

Impact on the Criminal Justice System

One consequence of this increase of juveniles in adult correctional facilities has been to further tax an already burgeoning adult jail and prison population.  Adult courts, already backlogged as a result of the War on Drugs, now resemble assembly lines, with everyone involved seeking to ease the strain.

Clerks push the paperwork along as quickly as possible without regard to whom or what the charges are; prosecutors seek to close the case as quickly and efficiently as possible so as to maintain their statitistical record of prosecutions; public defenders are heavily loaded and correspondinly underpaid for work with defendants such that few can pay more than cursory attention to any case; and judges are likewise strained to the point of simply pushing to the next case. In fact, in many courts today, the most common word heard is “Next.”

Read Also: Recommendations for Improvements to the Juvenile Justice System 

Feeling the strains on the system, many communities are beginning to permit certain vices, such as gambling and lotteries to better afford the cost of locking up the growing numbers of primarily drug offenders, many of whom are teens seeking to make a living or have fun with friends.

Finally, the Adult systems are scrambling to find ways to provide a basic education to the underage/juvenile inmates (Champion, 2010).  Increasing the numbers of juveniles sent to adult facilities likely has more consequences than these and the effects are yet to be seen, but some have considered these issues in depth.

Juvenile Education

The link between education and economic success is well established.  So when juveniles are sent to an adult correctional facility, but denied a basic education, they are placed at a serious disadvantage on reentry into society.  Not only are such persons limited by their criminal record in employment opportunities, but without the basic education that the United States Supreme Court has even ruled is a right of every citizen, the chances of finding a living wage job become slim (Ely, 2008).

English: High School for Law Enforcement and C...
English: High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Español: Escuela Secundaria para Fuerzas de la Ley y Justicia Penal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thus, the odds of recidivism increase because on the outside, a person will find a way to survive, even if by illegal means, which runs the risk of landing them into further legal trouble. But survival instincts, especially in juveniles, have a way of drawing people into terrible choices when desperate. The only way to combat such instincts is through education.

The reasons that Adult Correctional facilities fail to provide such an education to juveniles are numerous, but essentially can be summed up as bureaucratic or economic.  Indeed, whereas some adult correctional facilities may see the need for better educational standards for their juvenile inmates, funds must be available for any allocation or change to occur.

In addition, most prisons and jails are bureaucratically operated; typically, nothing moves quickly in a bureaucracy (Ely, 2008). Hence, even when intentions are good among Wardens and the prison staff, their ability to effect positive change for their juvenile inmates is limited in many ways.

Recidivism among Juveniles

The Correctional Educational Association conducted a study whereby it determined that a basic education does reduce recidivism rates.  In the study, it is interesting to note that although the participants had similar post-confinement employment rates, the groups that received educational programming were found to be less likely to be re-arrested, tried, and convicted.  Hence, this study demonstrated that the most effective way to reduce future criminal behavior by current delinquent juveniles is to provide the training needed to live productively once released (Ely, 2008).

In fact, in many communities across the nation, organizations have been in place for years to aid juvenile offenders correct their course. One such is the Boys & Girls Clubs/Villages of America, but as with most such organizations, funding is often an issue to expanding services and as already mentioned, the “get tough” approach still in place in many locations nationwide prevent judges from recommending these programs.

Once a juvenile enters the adult criminal justice system, it is largely impossible for a judge, even if the situation warrants such a course, to send a juvenile anywhere but an adult correctional facility, closing off access to such effective programs.

Is there any wonder then that recidivism rates among juveniles are among the highest in the nation. Our current apporach is creating career criminals at an alarming rate and the irony is that the solution is simple: Teach them.

Cost to/Impact on Society of Jailing Juveniles

Considering that the cost to house inmates far exceeds the benefit of having these same persons living productive lives, there is no real argument that the cost of providing an education to juvenile inmates is outweighed by the benefits.

On average, it costs between $20,000 and $40,000 to house an inmate for a year according to Blacks Law Dictionary online. By way of contrast, according to the National Institute of Education Sciences, the cost to educate students in a primary school is $11,153 each. It does not take a genius to understand that if only ONE juvenile per jurisdiction can be diverted away from the adult criminal justice system to any of a number of programs (often supported by contributions, not tax dollars), the monetary savings to the nation would be enormous.

However, the issue in the adult correctional facilities is not so much a lack of interest in educating juveniles in the facility as it is a matter of securing and allocating the funds necessary to carry out such a mission.  Many correctional systems are simply unprepared for the influx of young inmates and are struggling to locate both funds and resources, such as qualified teachers (Ely, 2008).

Read Also: Juvenile Justice System Case Study: A Needs Based Recommendation

This is why in many jurisdictions, officials need to take a serious second-look at the entire “get tough” approach, remove the limits imposed on judges, and seek alternate solutions. Simply locking juveniles in prison is not an effective use of valuable and scarce monetary resources.

Additionally, there are costs associated with locking juveniles in adult correctional facilities which are not monetary, nor can be specifically measured, but studies reveal are real and extraordinarily high none-the-less. For instance, there is evidence that strong family ties result in a more productive society.

When juveniles are incarcerated, already weak family ties are further weakened. The end result is reduced productivity in the future. Hence, economic studies into the relationship between incarcerated juveniles and the economy need to be conducted. There is a correlation, but eactly what the costs to society are in hard figures which even the most obtuse politician can comprehend are are needed.

Future Sentencing of Juveniles

It should be remembered that the cost of prosecuting in Adult Court is higher than in Juvenile court, so the initial costs to society of this particular trend is not in the interests of cost reduction (Redding, 1999).  Given the recidivism cost and associated monetary cost of sending juveniles to Adult Court, society would do well to consider other options.

What Should Happen in Juvenile Sentencing?

Project Rio began in 1985 as a two-city Texas experiment aimed at helping prison inmates prepare for finding work once released.  In an unusual meeting of forces, two State agencies, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Texas Workforce Commission collaborated for the project.  For the participants in the program, the results have been significant:  Reduced recidivism compared to other inmates and millions in savings to the State (Jablecki, 2005).

Given the proof that such a simple education as helping inmates learn how to fill out job applications or create resumes results in reduced rates of incarceration among general population convicts, there should be no doubting the effect of proper education on incarcerated juveniles.  Yet, doubt appears to be exactly what is infecting the American Criminal Justice system today.

In December 2006, a United Nations resolution calling for the elimination of life sentences for juveniles was opposed by a sole nation:  The United States.  This demonstrates clearly the attitude of the national leadership regarding juvenile justice:  Hard-line, despite evidence to the contrary (Victor & Naughton, 2010). The word for this is obtuse and an obtuse person is the one who gives rise to the old expression, “cutting off the nose to spite the face.”

Read Also: Juvenile Justice?

Wihtout a doubt, juvenile sentencing needs to return to the days of normalcy. Juveniles need to be treated as juveniles. They are NOT adults, nor should they be treated as if they are, no matter the situation. Consider this for a moment. You are at work and your boss tells you that because you are new, you are not able to use certain equipment. Indeed, new people are often restricted and in fact, less is required of them as well. New employees are never held as accountable for mistakes. However, you make a mistake and you are fired, with the boss telling you that you have been there long enough to know better.

This scenario demonstrates the situation into which juveniles today find themselves. On the one hand, they are told they are too young to make certain choices, but when it is convenient for the judicial system, they are then told they are old enough to recieve the same punishment that an adult would receive. It does not take a stretch to believe that resentment for the sytem will set in at such a duplicitous situation.

Thus, there needs to be further study into the results of such treatment. Psychology has long-known that parents who are inconsistant with their children raise socio-paths. What is such inconsistency on the part of the State doing to an entire generation of juveniles? This is information which is very much needed in the juvenile criminal justice system.

What May Happen in Juvenile Justice?

A more likely scenario, given the initial get-tough approach of the 90s coupled with the increased fear of terrorism, is that the Criminal Justice system will simply continue to become more hardened toward criminals, juveniles included.  Indeed, many today are recommending the elimination of the Juvenile Justice System altogether (Waller, 2009).

Some predict that the system will only become tougher for a time, then eventually shift the other direction as if moving in a natural cycle (Muraskin & Roberts, 2009).  This may be and if so, rather than moving to a policy of controlled education and training of juveniles by the State, many States will likely leave the training of these young offenders to the older, criminal mentors they will find in prison:  The outcome of such policies are sure to be felt for years.


The Criminal Justice System is charged with protecting the public, which means protecting public peace and tranquility as stated in the Constitution.  To achieve that Constitutional mandate, some have taken a hard-line approach that satisfies public outcry, but does little to alleviate the conditions that promote lawlessness.

Until lawmakers follow the evidence in writing law that affects juvenile cases, the Justice System will continue to enable recidivism, rather than reduce it.  Although researchers have clear evidence of the positive effects of information, knowledge, and training, policymakers ignore this to curry favor with an ill-informed, ignorant public.  The result can only be a reduction in peace and tranquility along with an increase in crime.


  • Champion, D. J. (2010). The Juvenile Justice System: Delinquency, Processing, and the Law (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentis Hall.
  • Ely, C. D. (Aug13, 2008). A Criminal Education: Arguing for Adequacy in Adult Correctional Facilities. Columbia Human Rights Review. 39 (), 795-832
  • Muraskin, R., & Roberts. A.R. (2009). Visions for change: Crime and justice in the twenty-first century (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
  • OJJDP. (June 2010). OJJDP Fact Sheet: Delinquency Cases Waived to Criminal Court 2007. Retrieved from
  • Paul. A. (May11, 2007).   America’s Imprisoned Kids. The American Prospect.
  • Redding, R. E. (April 1999). Examining Legal Issues: Juvenile Offenders in Criminal Court and Adult Prison. Corrections Today, 61(2), 92.
  • Victor, J. L. & Naughton, J. (2010). Annual editions: Criminal justice. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  • Waller, B. N. (2009). You decide! Current debates in criminal justice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

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