9.11. Juvenile Institutions

Alison S. Burke and Kate McLean

Just as the juvenile court has different practices, so too does the correctional side of the juvenile justice system. Since the aim of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation, the treatment of youth is somewhat different than the treatment of adults. For example, justice-involved youth can be sent to detention centers, group homes, boot or wilderness camps, residential treatment centers, long-term secure facilities, or other institutions; they can also be sent to adult jails or prisons, so long as “sight-and-sound” separation is maintained – meaning that they cannot be housed with or next to adult inmates, nor share any common spaces. The characteristics of different institutions specific to juveniles are reviewed below.

Detention Centers: In the first stages of the justice system, the court must decide if it will detain the youth. If a youth is detained, they are sent to a detention center, which is a short-term, secure facility. These are comparable to adult jails. Youth are often kept in detention facilities while waiting for disposition or transfer to another location. The average length of stay is 2-3 weeks. Factors that increase the likelihood of detention include prior offenses, age at first offense and current age, and the severity of the current offense. Research also suggests that race, gender, and socioeconomic status also play a role in deciding whether to detain a youth.

Group Homes: Group homes are long-term facilities where youth are allowed and encouraged to have extensive contact with the community. Youth may attend regular school, hold jobs, take public transportation, etc. In many group homes, youth learn independent living skills that prepare them for living on their own. These are similar to adult halfway houses.

Boot Camps and Wilderness Camps: As discussed in the last chapter, correctional boot camps largely serve juvenile or young adult populations. Boot camps are secure facilities that operate like military basic training. They focus on drills, manual labor, and physical activity. They are often punitive and very strict. Despite popular opinion, research shows that these are ineffective for preventing future delinquency. The length of stay is generally for several weeks. On the other hand, ranch/wilderness camps may be prosocial and preventative. These are long term residential facilities that are non-restrictive and are for youth who do not require confinement. These include forestry camps and wilderness programs.

Residential Treatment Centers: RTCs are long-term facilities that focus on individual treatment. They include positive peer culture, behavior modification programming, and helping youth develop healthy coping mechanisms. Many have specific targeted populations, such as kids with histories of substance abuse or issues with mental health. They are often considered medium security, and the average stay is often six months to a year.

Long-term Secure Facilities: Long-term facilities are strict, secure conferment. These include training schools, reformatories, and juvenile correctional facilities. These facilities are often reserved for youth who have committed serious offenses. They are similar to adult prisons but operate under a different philosophy. For example, incarcerated youth are still required to attend school, which is within the facility.

Disproportionate Minority Contact

Considerable research on disproportionate minority contact has been conducted over the past three decades. Disproportionate minority contact (DMC) “occurs when the proportion of youth of color who pass through the juvenile justice system exceeds the proportion of youth of color in the general population.” [1] DMC can be observed at every stage of the juvenile justice system, from arrest to adjudication. Research shows minority youth are over-represented in arrests, sentencing, waiver, and secure placement. States receiving federal grant money are required to address DMC  “regardless of whether those disparities were motivated by intentional discrimination or justified by ‘legitimate’ agency interests.” [2]

In the News: The School-to-Prison Pipeline

6-year-old Zachery Christy, a first grader in Newark, Delaware, was suspended for 45 days for bringing a spork to school. The camping utensil, which contains a spoon, fork, knife, and bottle opener was a gift from the Cubs Scouts. The first grader brought the camping utensil to school although the “dangerous weapon” violated zero-tolerance rules at the school. [3]

Zero Tolerance policies require strict adherence to school regulations and bans, such as the prohibition of weapons on school rounds. While intended to ensure a “one size fits all” approach that treats all children equally, research suggests that minority youth are unfairly targeted by such practices. Zero Tolerance policies also contribute to the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline, with children who are subject to school discipline ultimately coming into contact with the criminal justice system; the suspension or expulsion from school severs children’s ties to an important social support, harming their relationship with school, and making it harder to return and engage.

Want to learn more? Here’s an in-depth look at zero tolerance policies.

Is Youth Incarceration Justified?

In 2007, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh published a groundbreaking study know as the “Pathways to Desistance” project. Following over 1,300 serious juvenile offenders over 7 years following adjudication, the study found that most participants decreased or stopped their offending over time – a phenomenon known as “desistance.” Moreover, participants’ desistance seemed independent of their specific disposition, with individuals sent to long-term secure facilities no more, and no less, likely to recidivate than their peers on probation. Given the social, emotional, and financial toll of youth confinement, the “Pathways” study suggested that the benefits may not justify the costs.

  1. Short, J., & Sharp, C. (2005). Disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.
  2. (Johnson, 2007, p. 374). 
  3. Urbina, I. (2009, Oct. 1).  It’s a fork, it’s a spoon, it’s a….weapon? The New York Times.  https://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/12/education/12discipline.html


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