Children and Communities are Better Off When Children are Not Locked Up

MYTH: Some kids need to be incarcerated for their own protection and to keep communities safe.

FACT: Locking up kids is inhumane, costly, and ineffective—and it hurts young people. Yet, municipal and state officials put children as young as seven behind bars, sometimes sending them hundreds of miles away from their families and communities. Most are arrested for non-violent crimes, misdemeanors, and even status offenses like underage drinking, vandalism, or not doing their homework.

You deserve better than your mistake. Your past does not define you.

Grace, a teenager sent to Michigan juvenile detention for not doing her homework in 2020

America incarcerates tens of thousands of young people in unsafe juvenile facilities and adult jails and prisons. Some of these places are benevolently called “schools”, but regardless of the name, they deny youth access to education and necessary mental and physical health services, and frequently violate their constitutional rights.

According to a May 2023 report, the US incarcerates “more children as adults in our prison system than the total combined prison populations of Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and Scotland.”

Corporal punishment in carceral institutions remains legal in 16 states. Documented cases show that the mistreatment of youth is common: they are placed in solitary confinement, controlled with physical and chemical restraints, and often physically or sexually abused.

Biases Persist that Criminalize Black Children 

In the 1990s the media and politicians embraced the so-called “super-predator” theory that depicted children, particularly Black children, as “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless…elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and “have absolutely no respect for human life”. This portrayal failed to acknowledge any underlying societal factors that lead to youth crime, including racism and poverty, or the increase in policing in communities. This reinforced harmful stereotypes that painted certain children as less innocent, older, and more threatening, particularly Black children.

This kind of animal imagery was already in the conversation. The superpredator language began a process of allowing us to suspend our feelings of empathy towards young people of color.

Kim Taylor-Thompson, a New York University Law Professor

In 2014, the American Psychological Association published a study involving 176 police officers, mostly white males, to determine their levels of two distinct types of bias — prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people by comparing them to apes. The research showed that Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty, and face police violence if accused of a crime. 

According to the study’s co-author, Matthew Jackson, PhD, “The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults.”

These views have persisted and continue to influence public policy, unnecessarily criminalizing children and young adults instead of helping them to heal.

Overpolicing of Youth

Youth crime rates in the US have plummeted in recent years, with incarceration rates dropping 41% between 1995 and 2010. School discipline policies, however, are moving in the opposite direction. Since 2000, out-of-school suspensions have risen by approximately 10%—more than double the number in the 1970s.

Students with law enforcement in their schools are five times as likely to face a criminal charge for offenses related to adolescent misbehavior.

The presence of police officers in schools has increased, leading more kids struggling with mental health conditions – particularly Black and Latine youth – to be labeled as “troublemakers” and become involved in juvenile and criminal legal systems.

Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled and four times more likely to be detained than white students.

ProPublica published an investigative piece in 2021 about a Tennessee judge who used an illegal policy she called the “filter system” to arrest and detain more than 1,500 children. In one instance an elementary school fight resulted in police arresting 11 4th graders for witnessing and not stopping a fight—a crime that doesn’t exist.

Author and law professor Kristin Henning writes about the criminalization of Black youth in her book The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth. She describes 13-year-old Eric who, after watching a movie, mimicked the creation of a Molotov cocktail using a toilet paper roll and household products and left it in his backpack at school, where it was discovered by a police officer. Eric was handcuffed and arrested. A white child who did the same thing had a very different experience. The school arranged for him to take a chemistry course to encourage his creative mind.

Join the human rights movement for kids and stand up for children’s rights.

It’s time we join together against human rights violations and fight for kids’ safety and well-being.

Taking a Community Approach

Incarcerating children is not the solution. Decades of research confirms that the enormous developmental and neurological changes that happen during adolescence impact decision-making. As youth mature, the majority grow out of impulsive, lawbreaking behavior and are less likely to re-offend.

The best place to meet children’s individual developmental and psychological needs and address errant behavior is within their own communities. 

A 2021 national poll found that 78% of Americans support preventative solutions over incarceration. Across the country, progress continues to be made in reducing the population of incarcerated youth and in closing juvenile facilities in favor of community alternatives.

Four counties in California have launched an initiative to end the incarceration of girls—who are the fastest growing portion of the juvenile legal system— and gender-expansive youths by 2027 through the creation of homelike alternatives to detention centers, providing the most vulnerable youth with community support and establishing a more effective process for evaluating whether youth pose an actual public safety threat.

Other communities have enacted legislation prioritizing access to community support for youth. Kansas, for example, has comprehensive legislation focused on reducing the reliance on incarceration and has invested over $12 million in community programs for kids. Georgia, Kentucky, Hawaii, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Utah also have passed legislation to strengthen and expand alternatives to youth incarceration.

The national 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline launched in 2022, connecting people to a trained counselor during a mental health, substance use, or suicide crisis. This is a major step toward addressing the mental health crisis in this country. Supported by effective public education, 988 is an opportunity to reimagine crisis response in a way that is equitable, accessible, free from law enforcement, and centered on the needs of young people.

This shift to community solutions isn’t just good for kids – it makes great economic sense, too. A 2020 study found that the average cost of incarcerating a young person is $214,620 annually or $588 per day. The same study found that services meeting individual youth’s needs in their communities can cost as little as $75 a day.

With a community-support focus, we can divert more young people away from interactions with law enforcement, courtrooms, prisons, and jails. We can help more children heal from trauma and thrive.

Looking Forward, Beyond the Myths

Thirty years after the super-predator theory was coined, America’s children continue to be harmed. Instead of perpetuating myths, we should be questioning the status quo that looks at children without empathy or compassion and allows kids to become unnecessarily entangled in government systems where they are locked up, abused, and denied their rights.

Incarceration provides the worst outcomes for young people. It’s time we push our government to take action to create communities that support children at every stage of development and give them the resources they need to grow up safe and strong.

help reimagine better futures for children for generations to come