Report Pitches Alternatives to Detention for Youth Charged as Adults

A Campaign for Youth Justice report suggests ways to better serve youth charged as adults outside of jails and prisons.

With fewer youth across the nation ending up in the adult criminal justice system, a report from the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) highlights ways to better serve youth charged as adults outside of detention.

A brief released last month looks at emerging practices designed to appropriately support many of these young people, including through community-based programming, therapeutic residential placements and services inside juvenile facilities.

In recent years, the authors of the report see progress for young people certified in the adult criminal justice system. At least 76,000 youth per year were charged as adults before the age of 18, but a large chunk of those youth never made it into adult jails and prisons. The number of young people held in adult facilities has dropped to 4,700 per night in 2016, from about 10,000 a night in 2000. That’s due in part to policy and legislative changes.

According to CFYJ, over the past 13 years, at least 37 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to allow more youth to remain in the juvenile justice system. That includes a host of “raise the age” initiatives that are pushing back the age of criminal responsibility as well as allowing many young people to remain in juvenile settings for longer periods of time. Recent years have also seen some states roll back transfer laws established in the wake of “tough on crime” initiatives.

For example, last year California passed a law that barred children younger than 16 from being sent to the adult system. Federal laws like the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act also encourage correctional systems to keep juveniles out of prison systems.

Even with fewer youth detained in adult jails and prisons, several discouraging trends remain for young people caught between two systems, according to the CFYJ report. In 2016, African American, Latino and Native American youth were overrepresented among juveniles charged in the adult system, and the CFYJ report calls the disparity the largest in three decades. Youth sent to the adult system continue to have noticeably worse outcomes than peers in the juvenile justice system. They are 34 percent more likely to return to the justice system — and for more serious issues — than youth who spent time in the juvenile justice system.

However, state data shows that most of youth charged as adults are not sentenced to jail or prison time. For the most part, young people who spend time in the adult system are largely back at home at a time when many of their peers are still in college. Eighty-five percent of youth sentenced as adults return to their communities by age 21; 95 percent are home by 25.

The CFYJ report looks at programs and practices for working with this population across three dimensions. It calls out successful community-based programs that could be considered as alternatives to incarceration for youth charged as adults.

La Plazita Institute offers cultural, clinical, vocational and other services to youth and families in Albuquerque, N.M.Photo: La Plaza Institute

That includes culturally competent programs like the La Plazita Institute resource hub in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the felony diversion program piloted by Community Passageways in Seattle, among others. The report also looks at the potential of non-secure therapeutic homes, like the ones pioneered by Treatment Foster Care Oregon and Boys Town in Nebraska. Finally, the report calls attention to juvenile justice reforms in Oregon and Washington that have allowed more youth to remain in juvenile justice facilities longer instead of being sent to adult facilities in their teens.

The CFYJ report offers several recommendations for work with youth charged as adults, created in collaboration last year with members of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network.

  • Invest heavily in families and communities before youth come in contact with the law.
  • Embrace restorative practices and services in the community.
  • Create a therapeutic environment for children who do need to be removed from their communities for public safety reasons.
  • Sentencing for youth should never be “life without parole” or tied to mandatory minimum time.

Read the full report here.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 352 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at