Juvenile Injustice: Children In The Criminal Justice System

"The number of children arrested and incarcerated has declined over the past decade, largely due to positive changes in policy and practice. However, America’s children continue to be criminalized at alarming rates and disparities have persisted. Many children—particularly children in poverty; children of color; children with disabilities; children with mental health and substance abuse challenges; children subjected to neglect, abuse, and/or other violence; children in foster care; and LGBTQ children—are pushed out of their schools and homes into the juvenile justice or adult criminal justice systems.

"• In 2019, 696,620 children were arrested in the U.S. (see Table 32). A child or teen was arrested every 45 seconds despite a 62 percent reduction in child arrests between 2009 and 2019.1

"• During the 2015-2016 school year alone, there were over 61,000 school arrests and 230,000 referrals to law enforcement, largely overrepresented by students with disabilities, Black students, and Indigenous students. The prioritization of police over mental health professionals in schools often leads to the criminalization of typical adolescent behavior and fuels the school-to-prison pipeline. Today, 14 million students attend schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.2

"• Although the number of children in the juvenile justice system has been cut in half since 2007, 43,580 children and youth were held in residential placement on a given night in 2017. Nearly 2 in 3 were placed in the most restrictive facilities.3

"• Another 653 children were incarcerated in adult prisons on any given night in 2019—down from 2,743 in 2009 (see Table 33).

"• Despite research showing that young people’s brains continue to develop and mature through their late teens and into their mid-twenties,4 young adults do not often have access to the age- and developmentally-appropriate policies and resources they need. Adolescents and young adults often 'age out' of offending; however, as of 2021, 46 states and the District of Columbia automatically prosecute 18-year-olds as adults and 3 states automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults (Vermont is the first and only state to expand juvenile court jurisdiction to 18). All states also allow or require younger children charged with certain offenses to be prosecuted in adult court.5"


"The State of America's Children 2021," Children's Defense Fund. Washington, DC: 2021.