Over the last 20 years, elected officials and juvenile justice system stakeholders have changed policies and practices to create a more developmentally appropriate youth justice system, resulting in a reduction of the number of confined youth by 60 percent since the 1990s and reducing the number of youth automatically prosecuted as adults by 56 percent since 2007.
This change in course is largely the result of policies that restrict the use of secure detention facilities and limit prosecution of youth in the adult court system.
These trends in declining youth incarceration rates, while positive, have primarily focused on youth involved in nonviolent offenses. Moreover, despite a significant decline in the overall use of confinement, racial disparity in the juvenile justice system has worsened in many jurisdictions. This is due, in large part, to the fact that too many jurisdictions still rely on confinement and transfer to the adult system for youth who engage in violence.
The research clearly shows that youth are best served in the least restrictive setting, regardless of underlying offense type. However, state practices frequently do not follow these lessons, turning to secure settings and transfer to the adult criminal justice system when other interventions would be more effective at addressing the underlying cause of the behavior and delivering a better public safety return on investment. Instead, these punitive practices worsen racial disparities, saddle youth with the collateral consequences of a criminal record if they are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system, and contribute to recidivism.