United States Juvenile Prison Populations Reach All-Time Lows

by Vins

Juvenile prisons hold the lowest populations of incarcerated children ever, as of 2020. Juvenile incarcerations declined “as juvenile arrests have also dropped for most crimes except murder,” as reported by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange on January 10, 2023. This comes at the same time as the media is exposing many problems within the juvenile prison system. Between the vast problems within the system and the growing complications of sustaining prisons with low populations, some states have altogether closed their juvenile prisons.

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “the number of youth placement fell 77 percent between 2000 and 2020” and 25,014 youth were in placement in 2020. Furthermore, according to the same office, arrests involving youth fell below 500,000 in 2020. According to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, “one in three youth correctional facilities shut down” between 2002 and 2012. However, the low populations in the remaining facilities mean that some have “very small numbers of  incarcerated kids but with very large overhead costs.” The Justice Policy Institute reports that “40 states and Washington, D.C. report spending at least $100,000 annually per confined child.” Data from the advocacy organization No Kids in Prison found that, in New York, it costs $893,206 annually per child, while it only costs $22,366 annually to educate a child in public school.

While juvenile prison populations decline and costs rise, many states are working to close juvenile prisons. Instead, they are “diverting that funding to alternative placements in the community, such as group homes or home confinement and programs that provide  rehabilitative and wraparound social services.” This is an effort supported by many, especially in light of reports of the harm caused within the youth prison system. Not only do incarcerated youth and young adults experience “worse physical and mental health later in adulthood,” according to a study published in Pediatrics, but many also “experience violence, sexual assault and mental and physical trauma,” says Vincent Schiraldi, a former commissioner of New York City’s probation and correction departments. Recently, states such as Louisiana, Texas, and California are moving to investigate or close youth prisons, following shocking media reports. Articles by high-profile corporate media outlets, such as the New York Times, shone a light on the mistreatment and mentally and physically unsafe conditions that were unchecked within the juvenile prison systems in these states.

On the heels of these reports and the rising costs that come with incarcerating so few people, Mark Patterson, administrator of Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, believes a complete overhaul of the existing system isn’t the answer.

“I’m not saying there will be no consequences, but the consequences should be something that will make a better product for the overall community,” Patterson said. “Do we really need them to be secure? That’s the big question.”

Liz Ryan, the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, believes that “detention does more harm than good.”

While there is a variety of corporate media coverage of the incidents within juvenile prisons, there is none about the low populations. Furthermore, no news outlets reported on the all-time lows occurring. There is some coverage in relation to the low populations in some states, such as an article in the Washington Post about Hawaii having no girls in juvenile detention. There is little to no corporate coverage beyond this, and none of the coverage, either independent or corporate, highlights the larger implications of low juvenile prison populations like the article from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange does.


Brian Rinker, “‘It’s Not Just a Jail Break’: Juvenile Prison Populations Reach All-Time Lows,”  Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, January 10, 2023.

Charles Puzzanchera, “Highlights From the 2020 Juvenile Residential Facility Census,” Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, October 2022.

Charles Puzzanchera, “Highlights From the 2020 Juvenile Residential Facility Census,” Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, July 2022.

Liz Ryan, “New OJJDP Initiative Promotes Community-Based Alternatives to Youth  Incarceration,” Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, July 11, 2022.

Student Researcher: Sierra Walker (Drew University)

Faculty Evaluator: Lisa Lynch (Drew University)