New data from the Department of Justice shows that the number of youth locked up in adult correctional facilities continues to plummet, dropping 14% between 2020-21.
As recently as 2008, there were more than 10,000 youth in adult jails and prisons across the country. In 2021, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the total had fallen to 2,250. Nearly all of those youth were held in jails, with only 290 incarcerated in adult prisons. That prison total represents a 90% decline from this century’s peak of 2,890 in 2009.
There was little surprise that in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic set in, the already declining number of youth in adult facilities dropped sharply, down more than 25% from 2019. There was a generally greater effort to avoid confining people in close proximity, especially with youth, at a time when concerns ran high about the spread of the virus.
It is more noteworthy that in 2021, a year in which some parts of the country saw a rise in violent crime, the use of adult jails in particular continued to descend. It would not have totally shocked Youth Services Insider if the decline had stalled.
There are a few reasons for this decline, starting with the fact that across America, youth are just arrested far less frequently, and thus there are fewer of them who might be jailed or imprisoned. Beyond that, here are a few other factors:
- In the past 15 years, several states have “raised the age” of their juvenile justice systems to include 16- and 17-year-olds — including Connecticut, New York, and North Carolina. Before those policy shifts, older teens arrested in those states were viewed as adults in the eyes of the law, and could be treated as such if jail was deemed necessary.
- Many states have limited the pathways by which a youth could be transferred to adult court, or directly charged in adult court for certain crimes. In the new report, this shows up in the comparative breakdowns of jail and prison incarceration of youths: in 2002, the ratio was 66% jail and 34% prison; in 2021 it was 87% jail and 13% prison.
- Even when youth are charged and handled as adults, many more states will now hold them in juvenile facilities until at least their 18th birthday. This is in part due to some federal pressure related to recent updates of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, and strengthened standards around the Prison Rape Elimination Act that make housing youths anywhere near adults a liability nightmare.
In 2018, the great legal advocate for incarcerated youth Neelum Arya published “Getting to Zero,” an analysis of what would need to happen to essentially eliminate the practice of incarcerating youth in adult facilities. She presents data that suggests the federal numbers in reports like the one we mention here today are a fairly severe undercount, and that in fact the annual number of youth who experience adult incarceration could be far, far higher; perhaps as high as 60,000.
Arya identified 10 states where legal changes could prompt a cumulative 50% decrease in youth jailing and imprisonment. She estimated that raise the age measures in Georgia, Michigan, Texas and Wisconsin would effect a 22% decrease, and that the total could be cut by 28% if six states started holding youth in juvenile facilities until age 18 (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, Maryland and Pennsylvania).
Youth Services Insider is not sure if any of those six states have changed their jailing laws on youth in the past five years; our guess is none of them have. Michigan has raised the age, but the other three on Arya’s list remain the lone holdouts that still view all 17-year-olds as adults.