Telling the Whole Truth about Juvenile Incarceration Rates

While a new report finds that juvenile incarceration rates are declining in the United States, there is more to the story than just the numbers.  In this guest post, Jason Langberg, staff attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina, examines critical questions that the media has thus far ignored.

Telling the Whole Truth about Juvenile Incarceration Rates  

By Jason Langberg

Elijah was a 11-year-old black middle school student at an alternative school. He lived in grinding poverty and was the victim of domestic violence. He had an emotional disability but his Individualized Education Program (IEP) was generic and provided him with no mental health services. Elijah became involved in the juvenile system after stealing some bicycles. He spent time in and out of therapeutic group homes; however, he was sent back to his mother’s house after state budget cuts caused a dramatic reduction in group home placements. Elijah continued getting in trouble. Eventually a juvenile court judge ordered Elijah to cooperate with a placement by his mental health treatment team, which decided to send him to a locked psychiatric residential treatment facility (PRTF).

Elijah spent three months in a detention center awaiting placement in a PRTF. He was eventually shipped off to a private PRTF located three hours from his family. At the PRTF, he didn’t have an IEP in place and received the same generic curriculum as all of the other middle school students, regardless of age or ability level. Elijah was discharged 10 months after being admitted because the corporation that ran the PRTF shut down. He’s now 14-years-old, living in a group home, and still on probation.


Jamal was a 16-year-old black high school student who lived in grinding poverty. He was an incredibly smart kid, played football and had dreams of going into the Air Force. He first became involved in the juvenile system as a 15-year-old tenth grader. After spilling a drink in class, he was excused to get paper towels from the restroom. While in the hallway on the way back to class, the school went into lockdown. The assistant principal encountered Jamal and accused him of skipping class. As Jamal tried to explain the situation, the two began arguing. The situation escalated when a school resource officer (SRO) got involved, slamming Jamal’s head into a window in order to subdue him. A delinquency complaint was filed against Jamal and he was placed on probation for six months. Jamal successfully completed his probation at the beginning of eleventh grade and had a great start to his year. He was earning good grades, staying out of trouble and meeting with military recruiters to initiate the process of enlisting in the Air Force.

One afternoon, he borrowed a friend’s telephone to call his father. While on the phone with his dad, another student grabbed the phone out of Jamal’s hand and kept it. Though the phone was soon returned to its rightful owner and Jamal played absolutely no role in its theft, a school administrator suspended Jamal out-of-school for three days and the SRO filed a complaint against Jamal, alleging that he was an accessory to theft. Since Jamal was 16-years-old in North Carolina, he was automatically prosecuted in the adult criminal system. Acknowledging that he didn’t believe Jamal to be involved in phone thefts, the SRO told Jamal’s father that he would recommend to the District Attorney that Jamal be granted a deferred prosecution. When his father asked the SRO why he filed the complaint against Jamal, the officer said that there had been several phones stolen recently and the school wanted to send a message to the thieves by executing swift and harsh punishments. Thanks to the zealous advocacy of Jamal, his father and a pro bono attorney, the case was referred to teen court and ultimately dismissed. However, because the school wanted to send a message, Jamal now has a record in the adult criminal system that could come back to haunt him, and he came incredibly close to seeing his dreams of going into the Air Force destroyed.


A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that juvenile incarceration rates in the United States, although still highest among industrialized nations, are declining nationally and in most states. Bart Lubow, Director of the Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, attributes the national decline to three factors: 1) declining juvenile crime rates; 2) state budget cuts; and 3) a shift in thinking about the best ways to handle young people who break the law.

A declining juvenile incarceration rate is unquestionably a positive development because correctional institutions are, generally speaking, dangerous, ineffective (i.e., don’t reduce recidivism or increase public safety) and expensive. However, the juvenile incarceration rate is only one data point, which presented in isolation fails to take into account other related realities, including the real experiences of young people like Elijah and Jamal.

Although the Casey Foundation report provides good context for the declining incarceration rate, media coverage of the report and discussion of the report by policymakers have not. In order to situate the state data provided in the Casey Foundation report, media, policymakers and juvenile justice advocates should ask the following questions about their state’s policies and practices:

  • What are the actual conditions in facilities for juveniles who remain incarcerated?
  • Why are juveniles still being incarcerated?
  • Who is still being incarcerated?
  • How much is the state still spending to incarcerate juveniles?
  • How many juveniles are confined in adult facilities and mental health institutions, and therefore, not included in the Casey Foundation’s data?
  • How many juveniles are still involved in the juvenile system, which increases their likelihood of involvement in the adult criminal system and future incarceration?

Unfortunately, once policymakers and advocates answer these questions, they will likely discover that, despite recent progress, youth incarceration is still too frequent and expensive, and disproportionately affects children of color.

A focus on North Carolina reveals that by asking these questions, we can shed some light on other important realities needing reform.

According to the Casey Foundation report, in 2010 there were 849 youth in confinement in North Carolina and the rate of youth confinement in the state declined by 43% from 1997 to 2010. The declining juvenile incarceration rate in North Carolina is primarily due to budget cuts and declining juvenile crime rates; there was a 28% decline in the delinquency rate from 2006 to 2011. The state may also very well be making productive efforts when it comes to prevention and intervention, as it claims. The report has received attention in North Carolina, but the data has not been presented with necessary context.

What are the actual conditions in facilities for juveniles who remain incarcerated?

Currently, North Carolina has four juvenile prisons – called Youth Development Centers (YDCs) – located in Butner, Siler City, Kinston, and Concord. Three years ago, there were seven YDCs, but in 2011, the state closed the Samarkand and Swannanoa YDCs, and in 2012, it closed the Edgecombe YDC. In 2011, juveniles ranging from age 12 to age 20 were incarcerated in YDCs. Commitments to YDCs last indefinitely and for at least six months.

North Carolina has a long history of problems with YDCs. In 2002, the Asheville Citizen-Times published a series of articles revealing sex abuse allegations at the Swannanoa YDC, as well as claims that youth were “hog-tied” to their beds and “left alone for hours and not allowed to go to the bathroom.” In 2003, North Carolina’s State Auditor released a report finding “unsafe conditions” throughout the state’s youth corrections facilities. The Auditor’s report documented a high volume of abuse complaints, many of them substantiated, along with a failure in most facilities to properly document and investigate abuse claims. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed in a survey that youth in North Carolina’s YDCs reported sexual victimization while incarcerated in the state’s juvenile facilities. Abuse and unsafe conditions in North Carolina’s YDC may very well be an on-going problem.

Why are juveniles still being incarcerated?

Too many youth are locked up for minor offenses, including status offenses. A status offense is an act, such as truancy and running away, that would not, under the law, be a crime if committed by an adult. Status offenses are more effectively handled with community-based services, such as family therapy and mentoring, and do not warrant confinement. According to a March 2012 presentation by the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (now called the Division of Juvenile Justice): a) “NC averages more than 5 days in detention for status offenses”; b) “NC detains as many low-risk youth as it does high-risk youth”; c) “More medium risk youth are detained than high risk youth”. North Carolina had been out of compliance with the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which requires that youth charged with status offenses not be placed in secure detention or correctional facilities. This violation costs the state $320,000 per year in federal funding. Fortunately, North Carolina’s Juvenile Code was revised in 2012 to preclude detention for status offenders (“undisciplined juveniles”).

Who is still being incarcerated?

Black youth are disproportionately locked up in North Carolina. In 2011, black youth were approximately 26% of the total juvenile population but were 61% of youth admitted to detention centers and 72% of youth committed to YDCs.

How much is the state still spending to incarcerate juveniles?

North Carolina still spends too much money on locking up youth. During the 2010-11 fiscal year, the Division of Juvenile Justice spent $11,327,783 on detention and $39,884,674 on YDCs. Millions more is spent on throwing 16- and 17-year-olds in jails, prisons and mental health institutions. Taxpayer money could be better spent on prevention, early intervention and community-based alternatives to confinement.

How many juveniles are confined in adult facilities and mental health institutions, and therefore, not included in the Casey Foundation’s data?

North Carolina is the only state that treats all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when they are charged with criminal offenses and then denies them the ability to appeal for return to the juvenile system. The decline in juvenile incarceration rates doesn’t include the unknown number of 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina’s adult jails and prisons. It also doesn’t include youth ages 13, 14, and 15 who are in adult facilities after being transferred to and convicted in adult criminal court.

For years, North Carolina has been out of compliance with the JJDPA, which requires “sight and sound separation” (i.e., that juveniles not be detained or confined in any institution in which they have sight or sound contact with adult inmates) and “adult jail and lockup removal” (i.e., that juveniles not be detained or confined in an adult jail or lockup). The violations cost the state $640,000 per year in federal funding.

Moreover, juveniles who may otherwise be incarcerated could instead be ending up in psychiatric residential treatment facilities (PRTFs), which are locked, in-patient facilities for children and youth with mental illness and/or substance abuse issues. Some parents and/or juveniles, like Elijah and his mother, are being forced to choose between going to a PRTF or some other seemingly worse fate (e.g., charges being filed, being committed to a YDC, etc.). When they choose placement in a PRTF, Medicaid, the juvenile’s health insurance provider, or the parent is responsible for payment; consequently, the juvenile system is off the hook for footing the bill to incarcerate. Youth in PRTFs are often denied quality services and aftercare supports.

Moreover, juveniles are often held in detention for long periods of time while waiting for a PRTF bed to become available, despite the fact that detention centers are intended to be short-term facilities and are ill-equipped for long-term treatment and education services. Juveniles in PRTFs aren’t accounted for in juvenile incarceration rates. There are now 486 in-state PRTF beds, with many more kids being sent to out-of-state facilities. The number of PRTF beds in North Carolina has quadrupled since 2005.

How many juveniles are still involved in the juvenile system, which increases their likelihood of involvement in the adult criminal system and future incarceration?

Too many young people age 15 and younger are still involved the juvenile system, which lacks the resources necessary to adequately supervise, treat and rehabilitate all of the youth it serves. Public records show that during 2010, there were over 10,000 juveniles on probation, nearly 3,500 youth on some type of supervision, 744 youth committed, and over 7,700 youth on a diversion plan or contract for one day or more. In 2011, there were 6,380 admissions into juvenile jails – called detention centers.

The school-to-prison pipeline contributes to the huge flow of young people, like Jamal, into the juvenile and criminal systems. For example, during 2011-12, North Carolina public school students missed 791,442 school days as a result of suspension, and thus, were more likely to engage in delinquent and criminal activity. In 2011, 43% of all delinquency complaints were school-based. Additionally, probation orders often contain boilerplate language requiring juveniles to attend school regularly; therefore, juveniles on probation who are suspended are found to have violated suspension and may be sent to detention.

North Carolina would be well-served to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction and limit transfers of juveniles to adult criminal court. For all of the juvenile systems flaws, it is still far better for young people than the adult criminal system, as well as better for public safety and more cost effective in the long-term.

Additionally, all states would benefit from adopting some of the Casey Foundation’s recommended best practices for reforming juvenile corrections:

  • Limit eligibility for correctional placements to youth who have committed serious offenses and posed a clear and demonstrable risk to public safety;
  • Invest in a broad continuum of high-quality services, supervision programs and dispositional options to supervise and treat youthful offenders in their home communities;
  • Adopt policies, practices and procedures to limit unnecessary commitments and reduce confinement populations (e.g., implement detention reform, reform school discipline policies, make better use of diversion, enhance legal representation and advocacy, reduce correctional placements resulting from violations of probation, and limit lengths of stay in correctional facilities and other residential placements); and
  • Improve data collection and publication, including data on recidivism, success after release and conditions of confinement.

Jason Langberg is a Staff Attorney and Director of the Push Out Prevention Project at Advocates for Children’s Services, a statewide project of Legal Aid of North Carolina. He can be contacted at

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About Tamar Birckhead

This entry was posted in Conditions of Confinement, Delinquency, Guest Blogger, Juveniles, North Carolina, Race, Class, Ethnicity, Reports, School to Prison Pipeline, State Laws. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Telling the Whole Truth about Juvenile Incarceration Rates

  1. The methods of incarceration in place simply aid in increasing anger and desparity in our youth. These methods are not rehabilitative psychologically nor sociologically so is it any wonder we see so many repeate offenders? But it starts at home with the parents. Positive parenting methods are not used nearly enough in the African American community, for example. If you are violent towards a child, he/she learns violence is the solution to control behavior. Then we citizens become the recipients of that violence. We pray you visit our site and get involved with what we are doing.

  2. Nancy J Franklin says:

    You have a wonderful voice for our children. I would love for you to add to your list of recommendations to include training for school administrators. Notice that in Jamal’s case, the administrator’s inability to defuse situations and/or listen created an environment that increased problems. In addition, the School Safety Officer and the administrator should know the students well enough to recognize that Jamal wasn’t a “problem”. In Elijah’s case, there was no oversight to ensure protections as a student with a disability.

  3. Wayne Bumgarner says:

    YDC ‘ s still have a valuable place in the options available ! We are a nation of laws ! We are not Canada. France , or Norway !