Youth Justice

Graphic depicting the need for an investment in community and education to stop the pipelines that push them into the youth legal system

The US far outpaces other countries in detaining and criminalizing young people. Involvement in the youth justice system is well-established to have lasting negative effects on youth. Children and communities are better off when children are not locked up.  

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Key Facts


On any given day, the United States incarcerates more than 48,000 youth. State and local carceral systems send children as young as seven years old miles away from their families to grossly inappropriate facilities, with many detained for non-violent crimes, misdemeanors, and even offenses like underage drinking or missing curfew. The majority of incarcerated youth in the US are children of color. They are more likely to be perceived as threatening, be unfairly punished in school and funneled into prison, and are less likely to receive mental or behavioral health services. 

I think it means a lot for him to be back in school because it gives him hope and it’s a joy for me when I hear the excitement in his voice when he’s speaking of being back in school.”

-Ms. B., Mother of Named Plaintiff T.H.

Children in the foster system are also significantly more likely to become involved with the youth justice and criminal legal systems. Youth who spend time in the youth justice system do much worse than their peers on every measure that correlates with success, including rearrest, education, physical and mental health, employment, and stable relationships. 

States fail to maintain even the most basic protections for system-involved youth. Documented cases of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse against children during imprisonment are common across the country, and corporal or physical punishment in carceral institutions still remains legal in 16 states.

Detention is no place for kids. Keeping youth in the community can be done safely. Community alternative programs offer a range of services and resources to address underlying behavioral and mental health issues. Several states have enacted new legislation, decarcerating youth and redirecting funding from state-run facilities in favor of community resources and programs.

Children’s Rights is proud to be part of a national effort to close the foster system-to-prison and school-to-prison pipelines; end the use of solitary confinement, physical restraints, and other punitive practices; stop the criminalization of children; and invest in support services that enable children to grow and heal at home within their own communities. We are also working with fellow advocates to decarcerate and close New York City’s jail complex on Rikers Island.


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