#24. Juvenile Justice Reform Remains Elusive

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Juvenile justice reform continues to be ignored throughout the United States, despite President Biden’s campaign pledge to close youth prisons and establish a $100 million fund for youth and communities. Shani Saxon’s interview for ColorLines with a juvenile justice advocate, Liz Ryan, highlights some of the underreported issues that incarcerated children face in the United States. As Saxon wrote, these issues are multiplied by the impacts of COVID-19.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund’s 2020 report, “76,000 children are prosecuted, sentenced or incarcerated as adults annually,” with nearly ten times that number arrested nationally in a single year, and with children of color being “overcriminalized and overrepresented at every point—from arrests to post-adjudication placements.” Sixty-two percent of arrested children in the United States are white, but children of color are nearly twice as likely to be arrested in comparison to white children. Children of color make up approximately two-thirds of the population in the juvenile justice system, with 41 percent being Black and 21 percent being Hispanic. These racial disparities continue into the adult criminal justice system as well, making it more likely that minority youth will continue to be criminalized later in life.

Political leaders often discuss mental and physical health issues—such as those arising from solitary confinement—in adult correctional facilities, yet have continued in these conversations to exclude the plights of incarcerated youth. As Ryan explained to Saxon, room confinement has increased due to COVID-19 procedures; similar to solitary confinement, room confinement impacts youths’ mental health, maturation, and school progress.

In addition, the pandemic has made juvenile facilities a breeding ground for the virus due to often crowded and unsanitary conditions. Incarcerated youth “are not getting what they need inside” correctional facilities, Ryan told ColorLines.

There has been nearly no coverage regarding the need for reform in the juvenile justice system, and the topic evidently continues to be a low priority on the agendas of government officials and corporate news media. Coverage of youth juvenile facilities is mostly limited to local and regional news outlets (including, e.g., the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Tampa Bay Times) and focused on piecemeal changes in policy or the threat of COVID-19, rather than on reform of the system as a whole.

Shani Saxon, “Juvenile Justice Advocates Call on Biden Administration to Prioritize Jailed Youth,” ColorLines, February 4, 2021.

Student Researchers: Winnie O’Brien, Julia Sanchez, and Natalia Speedon (Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame)

Faculty Evaluator: Helen K. Ho (Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame)

Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen.