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The ununited state of juvenile justice in America

For children in the United States, justice often depends on where you live, the color of your skin, which police officer arrests you, or which judge, prosecutor or probation officer happens to be involved in your case.

Listen to the podcast

Listen to our seven-part podcast series, which follows the path that America's kids take through the juvenile justice system, from childhood to freedom.

Watch the videos

Watch the videos, produced virtually through video conferencing, to see an intimate view of juvenile justice in America.

I. Entering the system

‘A disjointed system’: Policing policies fuel criminalization of youth

After decades of police reform, kids of color are still vastly overrepresented in arrests and police use of force. The little to no youth-specific training in most law enforcement departments in the U.S. fuels this, experts say.

Forced out: Schools feed the juvenile prison population

Public schools continue to feed the school-to-prison pipeline through suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests. Kids suffer the consequences.

Judged by two systems: 60% of incarcerated kids have child welfare background

Both systems are meant to support the nation’s most vulnerable children, but by working in silos experts say they push kids from one system to the other.

Street love: Why kids join gangs despite the risks of arrest and violence

At-risk children across the U.S. are exposed to a variety of factors that increase their likelihood of joining a gang, which leads to higher rates of imprisonment and violence.

II. Pivotal decisions

‘I can’t breathe’: Hidden abuse in some private detention centers

For-profit companies make millions every year with the promise of safely rehabilitating kids in the juvenile justice system, but many kids say they leave worse than when they came in.

How thousands of jurisdictions determine a young offender’s fate

Youth can face very different outcomes throughout the juvenile justice system depending on the state or the county where they live.

‘Super-predator’ legacy: How children end up in the adult justice system

Tens of thousands of kids are prosecuted as adults each year, and some serve out their sentences in prisons where most of the inmates are adults.

III. Systemic inequalities

Youth of color disproportionately represented in the justice system

Teenagers and youth across the country commit the same types of crime, but disparities affecting young people of color have continued to grow.

Native youth navigate complex, contradictory jurisdictions

Burdened by generations of historical trauma, Native youth navigate a convoluted justice system that few other children face.

‘Hit twice as hard’: Children with disabilities face onslaught of challenges

Harsh school environments and disciplinary practices often leave children with learning and behavioral disabilities more likely to be suspended, fall behind in schools and enter the juvenile justice system.

LGBTQ youth confront inconsistent, unreliable patterns of incarceration

Because of vague and inconsistent regulations, the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people in the juvenile justice system vary dramatically across the country.

IV. Dangerous patterns

Employee misconduct: The abuse and mistreatment of juveniles in lockup

Detention is supposed to rehabilitate kids, but many are abused at the hands of staff members tasked with protecting them.

‘It’s never OK’: Sexual abuse persists in juvenile facilities despite years of reform

Data shows a decline in juvenile facility sexual assaults since 2012, but the number of incidents that go unreported make experts wonder whether enough is being done.

Use of solitary confinement often arbitrary and ‘all too common’

Despite denouncements of the practice, solitary confinement is still used in nearly every state, putting juveniles at risk for physical and psychological harm.

V. Questionable practices

Age, neglect and vandalism in facilities endanger some youth, critics say

Some juvenile offenders live in prisonlike conditions that often are cramped, unsanitary, archaic and poorly ventilated, affecting their health and welfare.

Patchwork education system in juvenile centers often falls short

The lack of consistent and uniform policies, along with a dearth of available data, conceal how – or if – young people learn in juvenile detention facilities.

Juvenile COVID-19 cases found in dozens of states

COVID-19 affects the juvenile justice system with a rising number of positive cases, as juvenile detention facilities evolve their health care protocols to help slow its spread.

Nearly three-quarters of youth behind bars suffer from mental health issues

Kids in the juvenile justice system struggle with mental health issues at a rate over four times higher than the general youth population, yet they often don’t receive much-needed treatment.

VI. Lasting effects

‘A lifelong trajectory’: Three men navigate reentry after incarceration

Incarceration as a juvenile, whether for weeks or years, has a lasting impact on a former offender’s life long after their release to society.

Released juvenile lifer learns to live after 26 years in prison

Darren McCracken, 14, was tried as an adult for murdering his mother and sentenced to life without possibility of parole. He’s free now, but is struggling to find his way in a world vastly different.

A murder victim’s mother finds forgiveness after 27 years

Terrence Sampson was 12 when he murdered his friend and neighbor, Kelly Brumbelow, 31 years ago in Texas. He spent decades in prison. Now he's free. Kelly’s mother has forgiven him.

Forgotten families: Detention causes emotional, psychological and financial burdens

Imprisoning children leaves families burdened with court fees, fines and extra costs, including lifelong emotional trauma that can tear families apart.


Dig deeper into the juvenile justice system in our Extras section. Fellows wrote 35 additional background and data-driven stories, including reporting on innovative solutions.


“Kids Imprisoned,” an investigation into juvenile justice in America, is the 2020 project of the Carnegie-Knight News21 program, a multimedia reporting project produced by the country’s top journalism students and graduates.


The juvenile justice system has its own language. Here are some of the most commonly used terms from News21’s reporting.

Term Definition

Aggravated murder

Aggravated murder refers to individual state statutes that define first-degree murder as "aggravated" based on various factors. Some of the factors that can determine an aggravated first-degree murder sentence are: the nature of the murder, the commission of a murder when accompanied by other violent crimes, use of explosives, if the victim was a police officer, judge, witness, prosecutor or juror, and the commission of a murder as part of gang activity. Aggravated murder can result in the death penalty, which 31 states allow, and typically reserve for the highest murder offense levels.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires criminal justice entities to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities, to ensure that people with disabilities are treated equally in the criminal justice system and that they have equal opportunity to benefit from safe, inclusive communities.

Automatic transfer

Legislatures in many states allow youth to be automatically sent to the adult justice system without a hearing. Depending on the state, statutory exclusion laws say youth are excluded from the juvenile system and will be sent directly to the adult system if they are of a certain age, and are charged with murder and other serious violent felony cases. Some states also have "once an adult always an adult" legislation, which means if children were previously tried as an adult, they cannot be in the juvenile system regardless of the offense.


A practice where courts re-label status offenses as delinquent offenses or punish status offending behaviors with punishments otherwise reserved for delinquent youth.


A formal declaration that someone is guilty of a criminal offense, made by the verdict of a jury or the decision of a judge in a court of law.

Crime against nature laws

An umbrella term encompassing sexual offenses that are unnatural or "contrary to the order of nature." Some examples of local "laws" refer to sodomy, beastiality, prostitution and acts involving minors.

Crossover kids

A child who has had contact with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. There are multiple paths to becoming a crossover kid – most encounter child welfare first, but some make contact with the justice system first. Other common terms are dual-system, dual-status, dually-involved, dually-identified and dually adjudicated. Each has a slightly different meaning.

Direct file

When a prosecutor has the sole power to determine whether a youth is tried as an adult. This decision is often made more quickly and the lacks individual consideration for each youth's situation that would come if a judge were involved, according to Campaign for Youth Justice.

Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment on convicted and incarcerated juveniles, including by exercising deliberate indifference to substantial risks of serious harm, inhumane conditions and inadequate medical and mental health care.


Expungement (also called "expunction") is a court-ordered process in which the legal record of an arrest or a criminal conviction is "sealed," or erased in the eyes of the law.

Federal right to a quality education

The constitutional right that requires all kids, including those incarcerated, be given equal educational opportunity regardless of race, ethnic background, religion, sex, financial or citizenship status.

First-degree murder

First-degree murder is the most serious of all homicide offenses. It involves any intentional murder that is willful and with malice aforethought or premeditated. Premeditation requires that the defendant planned the murder before it was committed or was “lying in wait” for the victim.

Fourteenth Amendment

The Fourteenth Amendment mandates that youth in pretrial custody be protected from harm and not be subjected to punishment.

Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act protects the rights of those with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal assistance. The U.S. Department of Education enforces Section 504 in programs and activities that receive funds from the department, which requires school districts to provide a "free appropriate public education" to each qualifed person with a disability who is the school district's jurisdiction.

Immediate threat

An immediate threat, or imminent danger, means conditions which, if no response were made, would be more likely than not to result in sexual abuse, injury or death of a child.


A broad term used to describe individuals, particularly youth and young women, meaning delinquent, unmanageable and unruly.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that makes available a free and appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children. Congress reauthorized the IDEA in 2004 and most recently amended the IDEA through Public Law 114-95, the Every Student Succeeds Act, in December 2015.

Invasive physical search; Patdowns

Invasive physical searches are physical examination of body orifices (such as vagina or anus). This type of search includes rectal and pelvic examination, and is physically and psychologically the most intrusive method. Patdowns are searches performed over the clothed body. These searches therefore include physical contact between the prisoner and staff member but no nudity.


Power of the court to judge cases and issue orders, or a territory where a court or government agency can exercise its power.

Juvenile detention faciliites

A short-term facility that provides temporary care in a physically restrictive environment for juveniles in custody pending court disposition. They often are places for juveniles who are adjudicated delinquent and awaiting disposition or placement elsewhere, or are awaiting transfer to another jurisdiction. A long-term facility, where juveniles go after they have convicted, is commonly referred to as a "training school" by facility administrators.

Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act

Established in 1974 and re-authorized in 2018, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act is a federal law that outlines the basic core requirements for juvenile justice. The four core requirements are deinstitutionalization of status offenders, removal of juveniles from adult jails, sight and sound separation from adult inmates and a focus on racial and ethnic disparities. Facilities in most states are checked for compliance in each of the four core requirements each year.

Juvenile justice system

The criminal justice system that processes youth under 18 who are accused of committing a delinquent or criminal act. The system is managed on a national level by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency prevention under the U.S. Department of Justice, and each state has an individual office to manage the system at the state-level, each with its own policies, statues and regulations.


When prisoners are confined to their cells as a security measure for a certain period of time.


Parole is the conditional release of prisoners before they complete their sentence. Paroled prisoners are supervised by a public official, usually called a parole officer. If paroled prisoners violate the conditions of their release, they may be returned to prison.

Policy-based protection

A law or rule that protects on some level sex/gender, sexual orientation and trans individuals while under the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system and is based in a legal policy on some state level.

Pretrial facility

A facility where youth are held prior to being convicted of a crime, either because of a failure to post bail or due to denial of release under a pre-trial detention statute.

Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA)

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is the only federal law governing how LGBTQ residents in juvenile and adult detention should be treated. PREA’s main purpose, however, is to address and prevent sexual violence in prisons by analyzing the "effects of prison rape in federal, state, and local institutions and to provide information, resources, recommendations and funding to protect individuals from prison rape.”

Private centers

State-run facilities are funded entirely with public dollars. The buildings are publicly owned, and all staff are paid directly by the state or county where they work. Private facilities, on the other hand, consist of for-profit and nonprofit organizations that are licensed by the state or county where they operate. Some receive public funds through contracts for operational expenses.

State-run facilities

State-run facilities are funded entirely with public dollars. The buildings are publicly owned, and all staff are paid directly by the state or county where they work. Private facilities, on the other hand, consist of for-profit and nonprofit organizations that are licensed by the state or county where they operate. Some receive public funds through contracts for operational expenses.

Rehabilitation Act

The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment, and in the employment practices of federal contractors.

Restorative justice

An approach to repairing justice issues that prioritizes repairing harm between affected parties, rather than punishment.

Second chance employers

Companies that market themselves as “second chance” employers for former convicts — such as Goodwill and Amazon.

School-to-prison pipeline

A phenomenon in which children are pushed out of schools through harsh discipline practices and heavily policed environments.

Sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline

A phenomenon in which trauma resulting from childhood sexual abuse leads to behavior that increases the likelihood of arrest and detainment. It can also refer to child sex trafficking victims being criminalized on the basis of prostitution charges.

Solan's Law

House Bill 158 in Louisiana, also known as Solan's Law, was named in memory of Solan Peterson, a 13-year-old Louisiana boy who took his own life in the Ware juvenile detention center in 2019. Now, jurisdictions are required to evaluate children's risk levels when deciding whether to jail them after an arrest. As a result, fewer children should end up needlessly incarcerated and traumatized.

Status offenses

Crimes that are unique to juveniles because of their age. They include truancy, running away, violating curfew, being incorrigible, or possessing alcohol or tobacco.


A term prevalent in the 1990s used to describe juvenile offenders who commit violent crimes, implying that they were reckless and raised without morals.

Survival crimes

Survival crimes are such as theft, prostitution, or participating in the informal economy, or all economic practices that are not covered or monitored by a government body, such as a "black market." These crimes are often the reason homeless LGBTQ youth end up in the juvenile justice system. "Survival sex" is a term that describes sex work done in exchange for food, income or shelter.

Survival sex

Survival crimes are such as theft, prostitution, or participating in the informal economy, or all economic practices that are not covered or monitored by a government body, such as a "black market." These crimes are often the reason homeless LGBTQ youth end up in the juvenile justice system. "Survival sex" is a term that describes sex work done in exchange for food, income or shelter.

Treatment facility

A juvenile court-ordered facility where inmates are allowed visits and receive mental health screenings and treatment while waiting for their sentencings.

Tribal sovereignty

Refers to the right of American Indians and Alaska Natives to govern themselves. The U.S. Constitution recognizes Indian tribes as distinct governments and they have, with a few exceptions, the same powers as federal and state governments to regulate their internal affairs.

Truancy charge

Parents can be fined or put in jail if their children are truant, or absent or late to school too often Every state varies on truancy limits and consequences.

Valid court order

An exception to the Juvenile Justice and Delequency Prevention Act that allows states to detain status offenders. If a judge previously made an order for a youth to follow in regards to the status offense and they break that order, states can use the valid court order exception to detain them. This allows states to be compliant with JJDPA and still detain status offenders. Not all states have valid court order exceptions in their legislatures and even when they do, not all states use it.

Zero-tolerance policy

An approach to discipline that explicitly mandates specific punishments for violations of rules, regardless of situational context. The policies gained traction during the 1990s, when "tough on crime" rhetoric prevailed.

Solitary confinement

Solitary confinement is defined as the placement of an incarcerated individual in a locked room or cell with minimal or no contact with people other than staff of the correctional facility. Typically administered in “23 and one” – a phrase indicating the youth would be locked down for 23 hours with one hour a day for hygiene and exercise.

Term Definition
Carnegie-Knight News21
Carnegie Corporation of New York
Knight Foundation
Walter Cronkite School