Across the country, low-level offending youth of color and poor youth
who come into the contact with juvenile justice systems are often
jailed even though they do not pose a public safety risk. This is
because the decision to detain is often based on perception or a lack
of alternative programs.
Youth of color comprise 38 percent of the youth population in the U.S., yet comprise nearly 70 percent of those who are confined. That is because youth of color are arrested, charged and incarcerated more than White youth for similar conduct, a majority of which are minor status offenses such as consumption of alcohol, tobacco smoking, truancy, or running away from home.
Disproportionality in detention reflects the effect of policies,
procedures and practices in local juvenile justice systems. Our goal is
to ensure the best life outcomes for all youth. When low-level offending youth of color and poor youth are jailed, the
result is a negative impact on their life outcomes, the local economy,
and the community’s public safety (because jailed youth are more likely
There are a number of things we can do to ensure that all low-level offending youth are released when appropriate, or are provided opportunities for rehabilitation in community-based alternatives to detention that are less costly, provide opportunity for change, and offer better outcomes for public safety.
Why Focus on Disparities in Detention?
Studies show that youth with a history of detention are less likely to graduate from high school; are more likely to be unemployed as an adult; and are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned as an adult. Studies also show that youth in need of rehabilitation or intervention who are supervised in alternative settings have lower recidivism rates than incarcerated youth.
In many jurisdictions, the majority of youth held in detention awaiting trial for non-violent offenses, or for violating probation or failing to appear in court, are youth of color. In the interest of equality and better outcomes for youth and public safety, it is crucial for jurisdictions to identify such populations and adopt viable solutions including alternatives to detention; and policies, practices and procedures within the system that ensure equity for all youth.
The Inequities We Work to Change...
- In 2003, 38% of the U.S. youth population was made up of youth of color. Yet youth of color made up 65% of the secure detention population.
- Researchers conducting a study for the Justice Department found that in two-thirds of state and local juvenile justice systems they analyzed there was a “race effect” at some stage of the process that negatively impacted outcomes for youth of color. Their research also suggested that the effects of race “may accumulate as youth continue through the system.”
- The federal government recognized in 1992 that youth of color are treated differently by the justice system, and amended the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) in an attempt to promote policies to address such disparities. Despite this, youth of color continue to be arrested, charged and incarcerated more than White youth for similar conduct, and are overrepresented at every decision-making point in the juvenile justice system.
- Studies demonstrate that youth of color are treated more harshly than White youth even when arrested and prosecuted for the same category of offense. For example, White youth use drugs at a slightly higher rate than African American youth, and are more than a third more likely to have sold drugs than African American youth. But African American youth are arrested for drug offenses at about twice the rate of Whites and represent nearly half (48%) of all the youth incarcerated for a drug offense in the juvenile justice system.
Download our Fact Sheet for statistic footnotes and more.