NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (CN) – Black boys make up nearly half of all male juveniles in confinement despite the fact that less than 14 percent of minors in the U.S. are black, according to a report from a Massachusetts-based prison reform advocacy group.
More than 70 million people in the United States are under the age of 18 and on any given day, about 48,000 juveniles are held in youth correctional facilities across the country, the Prison Policy Initiative’s Feb. 27 report states.
Many of those juveniles are held pre-trial or for nonviolent, low-level offenses such as probation violations, according to the report, which used data from the Department of Justice and included recommendations to continue the decade-long trend of reducing youth incarceration.
While the number of minors confined in the U.S. could fill a small town, the statistics actually reflect an improvement in reducing confinement rates. A 2013 report from The Annie E. Casey Foundation found that there were about 71,000 minors in correctional facilities in 2010, a significant drop from 108,000 in 1995.
Wendy Sawyer, who wrote the Prison Policy Institute’s report, said that despite the continued reduction, she did not expect to see that so many children continue to be incarcerated for minor offenses.
“A lot of it was surprising to me,” Sawyer said in an interview. “I’m aware that the number of those confined has gone down. I was really surprised that after making all these progressive moves, they are still locking up a lot of people for low-level offenses.”
The Prison Policy Institute also found that racial disparities in the adult prison system are pronounced in the juvenile incarceration system as well.
In 2015, black prisoners made up about 35.4 percent of the adult male prison population, according to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, while black boys make up 43 percent of the confined male juvenile population. Less than 14 percent of minors in the U.S. are black.
A recent study from The W. Haywood Burns Institute, which used data from 2015, found that 73 percent of incarcerated youth were held for nonviolent offenses, and 69 percent of all confined juveniles were non-white.
Compared to white youth offenders, black juveniles are five times more likely to be confined, Native American youths are 3.1 times as likely and Latino youths are 1.6 times as likely, the W. Haywood Burns Institute report states.
Oregon, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming have the highest rates of youth confinement, which each state in the range of 241 to 329 minors incarcerated per 100,000 juveniles, according to Justice Department data.
New England states are almost all on the lower end of youth confinement in terms of percentage of the total population. Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut all boast confinement rates between 38 and 95 jailed youths per 100,000 juveniles. Rhode Island is an outlier with 200 youths in confinement per 100,000.
Almost one in five juveniles in detention facilities are there for minor offenses or status violations, such as failing to meet with their probation officer, truancy or violating curfew, according to the Prison Policy Initiative report.
Meanwhile, about 16,000 – almost one in three – are being held without serving a sentence. Over 9,000 of those juveniles are being held pre-trial, while about 6,500 await sentencing.
“Incarceration has serious, harmful effects on a person’s mental and physical health, their economic and social prospects, their relationships, and on the people around them,” Sawyer wrote in the report. “This is true for adults, of course, but the experience of being removed from their homes and locked up is even more damaging for youth, who are in a critical stage of development and are more vulnerable to abuse.”
The report includes a series of recommendations to reduce juvenile incarceration, including raising the age in which juvenile courts have jurisdiction, removing youths from adult prisons, and prioritizing non-residential, community-based programs rather than confinement.
Another strategy that some states have started to adopt is to close down large, centralized juvenile facilities in favor of opening smaller, regional ones.
Earlier this year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced a plan to close down the state’s largest juvenile facility, The Lincoln Hills and Copper Lakes Schools, in favor of building five smaller, regional facilities.
“By moving from one facility to several facilities across the state, and placing a focus on mental health and trauma-informed care, we believe this plan will improve long-term outcomes for both juveniles and our staff working at these facilities,” Walker said in a statement in January.
The proposal, which has since been approved by state lawmakers, is touted as a means to improve safety and mental health services, but Sawyer is skeptical that plans like Wisconsin’s will reduce actual rates of youth confinement.
“I think that’s perceived as a lateral shift and not an improvement,” she said. “It’s not something I would float.”
A Justice Department spokesperson said it does not comment on reports filed by non-government entities.
Melissa Sickmund, director of the Nation Center for Juvenile Justice, agreed with many of the recommendations in the Prison Policy Initiative report, noting that states had already begun implementing such reforms before the report was released.
“These recommendations reflect the very reforms that states and communities are implementing,” she said in an interview. “This is part of why we’ve seen the declines we’ve seen since the mid-1990s.”
Sickmund said raising the age in which individuals are tried as an adult is helpful. She noted that Vermont raised its juvenile status age to 21 in 2016. Youth offenders under that age are tried in family court.
“Several states have raised their age to the 18th birthday,” she said. “Raising the age helps, as does rolling back their provisions for transferring juveniles to criminal court.”
Although many reforms can be made on the national and state levels, Sickmund suggested the key to reducing confinement would be to encourage the growth of alternatives to confinement on the local level.
“For both detention and commitment placements, a common obstacle is lack of alternatives. If the only choice is residential placement or nothing, decision makers will err on the side of caution and use residential placement, but if there are more options, they will be used,” she said. “Communities need to work with providers to expand non-residential options. This is particularly important for more rural areas which may not have adequate services to begin with.”
According to Sickmund, youth confinement rates could be reduced by not only expanding alternatives for juvenile delinquents, such as those that take a public health approach rather than a law enforcement one, but also by developing methods for determining when kids would benefits from these programs.
“The recommendation is to use screening rather than letting law enforcement decide by just dropping kids off at the detention center,” Sickmund said. “In many places youth may be detained for probation violations. This is a little like letting the police decide, but it’s probation deciding.”