The latest federal numbers on juvenile incarceration have been released via the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement, a data set updated for the Department of Justice every two years by the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
It is, in a field starved for sane collections of data, an oasis in the desert, with functionality that allows one to cross-reference national information in all kinds of ways, or look at topline state numbers by race, setting and offense type.
The top line: As is the case with juvenile arrests, the numbers continue to plummet. The census found 36,479 youth were placed out of their homes as a result of delinquency proceedings in 2019. That’s down 16% from 2017, and a 65% drop from the 105,055 in 1997, the first year of the census.
Youth Services Insider geeked out on the many national crosstabs to see what has changed, and what hasn’t, in terms of patterns of youth incarceration. We’re using “incarceration” here to describe all of the out-of-home options, by the way, not just detention centers and youth prisons. Here’s a quick rundown, comparing 2019 to the original census figures from 1997.
More Person Offenses
The proportion of youth placed for a crime committed directly against another person — assaults, robberies, and less often, homicides — has gone up. Youth incarcerated in association with these offenses are up from 33% in 1997 to 43% in 2019. This suggests not that the overall nature of juvenile crime is getting more violent, but rather that at least some juvenile justice systems are reserving an incarceration response to person offenses.
This shift is especially pronounced in detention centers, generally used for holding a youth before they go before a judge, or for short stays after adjudication. About 29% of youth in detention centers were there related to person offenses in 1997, and in 2019 it was 44%. We doubt it’s the only reason for this, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that one of the largest philanthropic investments in juvenile justice has been a multi-decade effort by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to reduce the use of pre-trial detention by working with states to better assess the risk of allowing a youth to remain in the community. That venture, the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, has gradually expanded to include eliminating large youth prisons and rethinking the probation process.
Little Change on Racial Disproportionality
While there are far less youth of every race placed outside of their home by the juvenile justice system, the proportion of those who are Black has remained high. About 14% of the youth population is Black, but they make up 41% of incarcerated youth. That is up a point from 1997.
Meanwhile, the proportion of white youth in this population has dropped from 38% to 33%. Latino youth remain underrepresented in out-of-home placements. A few specific points where disproportionality has grown:
-Technical violations: The Black share of technical violators who were sent out of home declined by one percentage point between 1997 and 2019, while the white share dropped from 40% to 33%.
-Detention centers: These facilities were 39% Black in 1997, and 38% white. Now, they are 46% Black and 28% white.
Detention Dropped Less: Placements in all settings have plummeted, but not evenly. The decades have all but erased the use of boot camps and wilderness camps, for example, with more than 90% declines.
Detention has been cut in half since 1997, but now represents a much larger proportion of the overall use of placements. The ‘97 census found 28% of the youth in detention centers; in 2019, those facilities accounted for 40% of all placements.
Homicides: The number of youth incarcerated in connection with a homicide went up 18 percent between 2015 and 2019, from 767 to 941. That is noteworthy given the rise in homicides that has occurred since the 2019 census; youth are often lumped into the coverage of this spike, though we have seen little data to suggest they are a big part of the recent rise.
The total is also way, way below the 1997 mark of 1,912 youth that were incarcerated for homicides.