Juveniles in Adult Prisons and Jails.
A National Assessment
By James Austin Ph.D.,
Kelly Dedel Johnson,
Ph.D., Maria Gregoriou, M.A.
GORSKI-CENAPS Web Publications
Published On: June 10,
2001 Updated On: August 07, 2001
Historical Context of the Study
The development of a distinct justice system tailored
to recognize the mitigating factors associated with juvenile crime is
recognized as one of the most progressive developments in the evolution
of criminal justice in the United States. Until the 20th century, no
formal differentiation had been made between society's response to
crimes committed by juveniles and its response to crimes committed by
adults. Beginning in Illinois in 1899, juvenile court systems were
instituted throughout the United States to place greater emphasis on the
welfare and rehabilitation of youth in the justice system. Specialized
detention centers, training schools, and youth centers were developed to
confine and treat delinquent youth apart from adult offenders. These
facilities were to provide a structured, rehabilitative environment in
which the educational, psychological, and vocational needs of youthful
offenders could be addressed. Although system crowding and funding
shortfalls have frequently compromised achievement of these objectives,
the goal of the juvenile court system has remained focused on protecting
the welfare of youthful offenders.
This concept of a distinct justice system for juveniles
focused upon treatment has come under attack in recent years. Beginning
in the late 1980s, communities across the nation began to experience
dramatically increased rates of juvenile crime. The arrest rate for
violent crimes of both males and females began to increase in 1987 and
continued to escalate until the mid-1990s. Although this trend appears
to have reversed, rates of serious crimes committed by juveniles remain
well above historical levels.
The increasing incidence and severity of crimes
committed by juveniles led many to question the efficacy of the juvenile
court system and to call for a harsher response to juvenile crime.
Juvenile delinquency that results in serious offenses has come to be
viewed as more a criminal problem than a behavioral problem, resulting
in a shift in public response to the management of juvenile offenders.
Researchers have noted this shift in trends toward more arrests, longer
periods of incarceration, fewer opportunities for rehabilitation, and,
most significantly, increases in the transfer of juveniles to the adult
criminal justice system.
Juveniles are increasingly placed in adult correctional
facilities. Concerned that the juvenile justice system may be ill
equipped to handle youth charged with serious crimes and that the
juvenile court may be too lenient in its punishment and
control of such youth, many states have begun amending their criminal
codes so that youth charged with certain crimes can be tried in adult
courts and sentenced as adults.
This report, Juveniles in Adult Prisons and Jails: A
National Assessment, provides data that are critical for an effective
response to the growing number of
juveniles being housed in adult jails and prisons. This report documents
the number of youth in adult facilities as of 1998, their demographic
and offense characteristics, the legal and administrative processes by
which such commitments are permitted, the issues faced by adult
correctional systems in managing juveniles, and the conditions of
juveniles confined in adult facilities.
Three major phases of work were associated with this
An analysis of recent legislative trends that statutorily require
juveniles to be tried as adults and a survey of existing statutes and
policies governing the transfer of juveniles to adult court were
A detailed census of juveniles in adult correctional facilities
was conducted using federal statistical reporting programs and an
extensive survey of federal, state, and local justice agencies.
Selected prisons and jails were visited to assess the accuracy of
the survey results and to examine the conditions of confinement and access to
This study represents the most thorough examination to
date of the issues presented
by youth who are incarcerated in adult facilities. The findings include
Approximately 107,000 youth (younger than 18) are incarcerated on
any given day.
Of these, approximately 14,500 are housed in adult facilities.
The largest proportion, approximately 9,100 youth, are housed in local
jails, and some 5,400 youth are housed in adult prisons.
Of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, 44 house juveniles
(age 17 and younger) in adult jails and prisons.
In recent years, the number of youth in jails has escalated,
while the number in prisons has stabilized or declined.
The actual number of youth who experience incarceration in an
adult prison is much higher than the number shown by a 1-day count, with
an estimated 13,876 juvenile state prison admissions in 1997. There are
no current estimates of the number of youth admitted to jails each year.
In terms of their legal status while incarcerated, 21 percent
were held as adjudicated juvenile offenders or pretrial detainees, and
75 percent were sentenced as adults.
Of the 44 state prison systems that house juveniles as adults, 18
states maintain designated youthful offender housing units.
In comparison with the adult prison population, a higher
proportion of youth were black (55 percent of youthful inmates versus 48
percent of adult inmates) and were convicted of a crime against persons
(57 percent of youth versus 44 percent of adult inmates).
The vast majority of these youth are age 17 (79 percent) or age
16 (18 percent).
Approximately 51 percent of the youthful offender population were
housed in dormitory settings, 30 percent in single cells and 19 percent
in double cells.
Health, education, and counseling programs were fairly standard,
with little evidence of efforts to customize programs for youthful
offenders. A few states operate programs specifically for the most
difficult to manage juveniles.
Among the policy recommendations from this report,
there are several areas in which the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA)
could address this issue through the provision of technical assistance
programs that target the staff and administrators
who manage juveniles in adult correctional settings. Among the key
issues are the following:
Ensuring that classification instruments are valid for this
subset of the adult correctional population and that risk and needs
instruments reflect the maturation issues and special needs of the
Enhancing the expertise of security staff in managing a younger,
more energetic, and more impulsive youthful offender and increasing
their awareness of the
potential for victimization of youth in adult facilities.
Developing specialized programs responsive to the developmental
needs of youthful offenders. These include educational and vocational
programs, sex offender and violent offender programs, and substance
abuse programs that take into account the roles these issues play in adolescent development.
Ensuring that staff in facilities are aware of and adhere to
federally mandated obligations to provide regular and special education
services to youth in their care. Such a program could be developed in
partnership with the U.S. Department
Expanding the array of nonviolent incident management techniques
that are effective in deescalating volatile incidents involving youthful
Developing appropriate and effective incentives for program
Given the relative newness of this issue and the dearth
of knowledge surrounding the conditions, impact, and consequences of
juvenile incarceration in adult
facilities, additional research is required in the following areas:
Full explication of the needs profiles of youthful offenders
requiring educational services, substance abuse treatment, mental health
services, and medical services.
These profiles could assist in the creation of developmentally
appropriate programs and industry standards for adult facilities housing
Assessment of different housing strategies such as the degree of
separation from adult offenders, the special management required by
dormitory settings, and the cost-effectiveness of these options given
the small size of the youthful offender population.
Assessment of the impact of youthful offenders on adult prison
populations and the development of strategies for minimizing the
"contagiousness" of the volatility and impulsiveness that are
common among youthful offenders.
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