Whether juvenile offenders should be incarcerated in adult jails—to deter them from offending or to hold them accountable and protect the community—or in special detention facilities for juveniles—which recognize the immaturity and vulnerability of young people—has long been debated. The term juveniles—often used interchangeably with youth and young people—refers to individuals legislatively defined as such in any given jurisdiction. Juveniles are above the legislated age of criminal responsibility (often 10 years in Western countries) but below the age at which individuals are dealt with as adults in the criminal justice system (often 18 years). While juveniles are held legally responsible for criminal conduct, they are usually processed via a separate justice system designed to deal with young people (the juvenile justice or youth justice system).
Historically, children and adults in Western countries were subject to the same criminal justice processes and penalties. Indeed, until about the mid-19th century, the very concept of a juvenile offender was not in regular use. Consequently, children received the same penalties as adults, including corporal and capital punishment, hard labor, and incarceration. A key shift in contemporary penal policy has been the recognition that juveniles require criminal justice responses that are separate from those for adults, and the consequent division of Western justice systems into separate systems for adults and juveniles. Debate continues, however, about whether juveniles— especially older juveniles—should be incarcerated in adult jails.
Juveniles can be incarcerated in adult jails for a range of reasons. In some jurisdictions, juveniles can be tried in court as adults, and thus subject to the same sentences as adults, including incarceration in an adult jail. In other cases, juveniles can be transferred to adult jails if they exhibit challenging behaviors in juvenile facilities. Juveniles can also be placed in adult jails for largely practical reasons—for example, if they have been arrested in a regional area where there is no juvenile detention facility.
Arguments for Incarcerating Juveniles in Adult Jails
Arguments in favor of incarcerating juveniles in adult jails are largely underpinned by the justice model of juvenile justice; that is, juvenile offenders are assumed to be capable of weighing up the risks and rewards of offending, and that those who “do the crime” should “do the time.” According to this perspective, juvenile offenders should be held accountable and punished for their actions.
Crime statistics suggest that in many jurisdictions, juvenile offending is increasing. It is also widely perceived that the seriousness of juvenile offending is escalating, and that juvenile offenders are increasingly presenting with constellations of complex problems (such as drug addictions and gang affiliations). At the same time, the effectiveness of many of the accepted approaches to juvenile offending (such as diverting juveniles from the justice system and restorative justice approaches) are being called into question. “Getting tough” on juvenile crime, by allowing juveniles to be incarcerated alongside adults, has therefore emerged as an alternative approach. Some argue that adult facilities must have a greater deterrent effect than the traditional juvenile justice options. If juvenile offenders are rational actors who weigh the risks and rewards of committing crime, then it follows that giving courts the ability to sentence juveniles to adult jails should act as a deterrent to juveniles. Those juveniles sentenced to an adult jail should be deterred by the experience from reoffending.
Advocates of incarcerating juveniles in adult jails highlight the need to protect the community from serious juvenile offending. If juvenile crime is increasing in both quantity and seriousness, and current efforts to curb it are ineffective, then it follows that the community is at increased risk from juvenile crime and needs to be protected. While this could be achieved by detaining juveniles in juvenile detention facilities, this is not always possible. In these cases, some have argued that the rights of the community should override those of juvenile offenders and that juveniles should be incarcerated in adult jails.
The cost of juvenile detention facilities is typically much higher than that of adult facilities. Juveniles of school age must be educated while in juvenile detention, and juvenile detainees are provided with more programs to address their offending than is the case in adult jails. Further, there is typically a lower staff-to-inmate ratio in juvenile detention facilities than in adult jails, as the state has an enhanced duty of care to ensure the well-being of juveniles in detention. It is therefore more cost-effective to detain juveniles in adult jails.
Finally, while the above arguments in favor of incarcerating juveniles in adult jails conceptualize juveniles as rational actors who deserve punishment, it has conversely been argued that in some cases it is in the best interests of juveniles to be incarcerated in adult jails. This may be the case if the juvenile has an adult family member in jail, is from a remote locality with no juvenile detention facility, and/or would miss out on programs in juvenile detention. For example, very violent juvenile offenders may be better managed in adult jails, which are more likely than juvenile facilities to have programs for violent offenders. In such instances, incarcerating juveniles in adult jails may be in the best interests of the juvenile, particularly in jails within which juveniles and adults can be housed separately.
Arguments Against Incarcerating Juveniles in Adult Jails
Arguments against incarcerating juveniles in adult jails are primarily underpinned by the welfare model of juvenile justice, which focuses on juvenile offenders’ needs, rather than their deeds. According to this model, juvenile offenders have complex welfare needs (such as child protection histories, mental health and/or drug and alcohol problems), and therefore require treatment and rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Jails are widely viewed as “universities of crime.” It has been well documented that jails do not reduce recidivism and can act as universities of crime for offenders. Incarcerated offenders can form criminal networks, learn new criminal skills, and endure physical and/or psychological damage that may contribute toward future offending. Although this argument relates to both juvenile and adult jails, these issues are likely to be more pronounced for juveniles exposed to adult offenders.
A key argument in opposition to detaining juveniles in adult jails is that juveniles are immature and inexperienced and should therefore be treated with more leniency than adult offenders. Research has demonstrated that juveniles are more impulsive and influenced by peers and less able to consider the consequences of their actions than adults. It has been argued, therefore, that juvenile offenders should be treated differently than adults and be provided with developmentally appropriate responses from the justice system. Further, it has been argued that staff in adult jails do not have the training or skills to manage juvenile offenders.
It is widely assumed that juveniles are better able to be rehabilitated as they are less entrenched in criminal careers than adult offenders. As such, those who oppose placing juveniles in adult jails argue that treatment and rehabilitation programs (such as cognitive-behavioral therapies and drug rehabilitation) should be tried before juveniles are incarcerated.
Research has shown that juveniles are uniquely vulnerable to a range of harms from being detained in adult jails, including physical and sexual violence. Psychological harm is also a common consequence of incarceration alongside adults, and suicides have been shown to be much more frequent among juveniles in adult jails than in juvenile detention. This is especially concerning given that not all detained juveniles have been convicted of an offense, but are in jail awaiting trial or due to welfare issues such as having been the victim of sexual violence in the home.
International human rights frameworks stipulate that juvenile offenders should be subject to a system of criminal justice separate from adult offenders. The United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, and Convention on the Rights of the Child all explicitly state that juveniles should be detained in facilities separate from adults, unless it is in the juvenile’s best interests not to do so. While not all countries are signatories to these frameworks, those opposed to detaining juveniles in adult jails argue that signatories have an obligation to meet the principles they embody.
- Backstrom, James. “Housing Juveniles in Adult Facilities: A Common-Sense Approach.” Corrections Today, v.59/3 (1997).
- Murrie, Daniel, Craig Henderson, Gina Vincent, Jennifer Rockett, and Cynthia Mundt. “Psychiatric Symptoms Among Juveniles Incarcerated in Adult Prisons.” Psychiatric Services, v.60/8 (2009).
- Richards, Kelly. “What Makes Juvenile Offenders Different From Adult Offenders?” Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, v.409 (2011).
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