Juvenile Detention Facilities Essay

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Until about the mid-19th century, the concept of a “juvenile offender” was not in regular use, and children in Western countries were subject to much the same criminal justice processes and penalties as adults. In the 21st century, however, juvenile offenders are most commonly detained in jails specifically for young people; these are usually called detention facilities rather than jails or prisons. The aim of juvenile detention is variously to deter, incapacitate, punish, and rehabilitate juvenile offenders. These aims, however, often compete or even conflict with one another, and there has long been debate about what the role of juvenile detention should be. Further, the empirical evidence more strongly supports some of these aims of juvenile detention than others.

It is widely accepted in Western democracies that detention should be used as a last resort for juveniles. A number of international instruments, including 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, stipulate that detention should be used only as a last resort for juveniles. This principle is commonly reflected in the juvenile justice legislation and policies of Western democracies.

Nonetheless, juvenile detention facilities remain widely used in many countries. Juveniles may be incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility for a number of reasons. A juvenile may be sentenced by the court to serve a period of detention following conviction for a criminal offense. Juveniles may also be incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility while on remand, that is, awaiting a trial, trial outcome, or sentence. These juveniles have not been convicted of the offense for which they have been placed in detention, and are therefore technically innocent. In some cases, juveniles can also be detained for welfare (i.e., noncriminal) reasons, for example, if the juvenile has been the victim of sexual abuse in the home.


A key rationale of juvenile detention facilities is that they incapacitate juvenile offenders; that is, they remove juveniles’ capacity to offend by removing them from the community. Proponents of juvenile detention argue that incarcerating juveniles prevents them from offending while they are detained (although juveniles can offend against staff and other detainees), and that this in turn enhances community safety. Incapacitation is considered particularly important for juveniles who commit violent offenses.

Juveniles’ sentences are typically quite short, however; in some jurisdictions, children’s court magistrates can only sentence juveniles to short sentences (for example, less than two years). As such, any incapacitative effect that juvenile detention has will only be temporary. Further, as it has been shown that juvenile detention can be criminogenic (i.e., can contribute toward reoffending), proponents of noncustodial measures for juveniles argue that detention may cause juveniles to commit more crimes once they are released into the community than they otherwise would have. According to this view, juvenile detention may actually increase juvenile offending, thereby decreasing community safety in the longer term.


Another rationale for juvenile detention is that its existence as a sentencing option should deter juveniles from offending. In other words, the threat of detention should prevent juveniles from offending. In turn, this should reduce juvenile offending and enhance the safety of the community. The deterrent effect of juvenile detention should be both general—that is, it should prevent juveniles committing offenses in the first place—and specific—that is, juveniles who have already been detained should be deterred by the experience of detention from committing further offenses.

Critics of this view, however, argue that juveniles often commit offenses on impulse. Research from a range of disciplines suggests that compared to adults, juveniles are much more influenced by their peers and often act with little forethought or regard for the consequences of their actions. As such, according to this perspective, detention (or any other punishment) will not deter juveniles from offending, as they do not weigh up the potential risks and rewards of their actions before committing an offense. The threat of detention will therefore not carry much weight in situations in which juveniles typically commit offenses.

Critics also argue that for some disadvantaged juveniles, the stable accommodation and regular meals provided by juvenile detention facilities may in fact be an incentive for juveniles to offend. This may also be the case for juveniles whose family members (e.g., siblings, cousins) are in juvenile detention. Again, therefore, juvenile detention might not be a deterrent for these young people.

Research demonstrates that a substantial proportion of adult prisoners were detained as juveniles. This suggests that many juvenile detainees are not in fact deterred from offending once they have been released into the community, but continue offending and spend time in detention as adults. Indeed, research consistently demonstrates that detaining juvenile offenders is very ineffective at reducing reoffending, and that community-based responses (such as supervision in the community) are as effective as juvenile detention (and much less costly).


Juvenile detention facilities are also designed to play a key role in punishing juvenile offenders. In most countries in which capital punishment for juveniles has been abolished, detention is the harshest penalty available for juvenile offenders. Many believe that offenders, including juvenile offenders, should be held accountable and punished for their crimes. According to this view, other punishments (such as fines, cautions, restorative justice measures, and community orders) are not harsh enough and do not adequately punish juvenile offenders.

These noncustodial punishments also do not send a clear message to the community and to would-be juvenile offenders that crime will not be tolerated in a particular community. For proponents of juvenile detention, therefore, the existence of detention as a sentencing option plays both an important practical role in punishing juvenile offenders, and an important symbolic role in denouncing juvenile crime and sending a message to the community about the acceptable bounds of behavior.

Critics of this perspective argue that many juvenile offenders have multiple, complex needs such as alcohol and drug addictions, mental health problems, limited schooling and literacy, dysfunctional families, and/or histories of maltreatment. As such, juvenile offenders require welfare interventions to address these needs, such as education and family programs, rather than punishment. Critics of juvenile detention also argue that juvenile detention is very costly, and that the limited funding available would be better spent addressing the causes of crime by resourcing welfare services in the community rather than on punishing young people by detaining them. Critics also argue that it is unfair to punish young people for the failings of the state (for example, governments’ failure to protect children from abuse or to provide adequate services in the community.


A competing rationale for juvenile detention facilities is that of rehabilitation. Juvenile detention facilities typically provide educational and vocational training to juvenile offenders, as well as programs designed to address juvenile offenders’ criminogenic needs (for example, alcohol and drug addictions or anger management issues). Such programs are often not available in the community, especially for juveniles from outside of metropolitan areas and/or very disadvantaged young people. Critics of juvenile detention argue, however, that juveniles should not have to be incarcerated to receive services that should be available to them in the community.

Further, empirical research demonstrates that juvenile detention does not rehabilitate young people, but in fact has a criminogenic effect, that is, actually fosters more crime. A long list of such effects has been documented, including the formation of criminal peer groups, separation from family and community, and disruption from education and employment. While rehabilitation may be a laudable aim, therefore, many believe that it would be better achieved in the community than in juvenile detention facilities.


Juvenile detention facilities occupy a contested position in the criminal justice landscape of many Western countries. This is particularly the case given that many juveniles in detention have not been convicted of an offense. Rather, while the main rationales for juvenile detention outlined above assume that juveniles in detention have been sentenced to detention following conviction for one or more offenses, many have been placed on custodial remand or detained for welfare reasons. Even when welfare issues are not the explicit reason for a juvenile’s incarceration, welfare issues are often inextricably linked with juveniles’ criminal behavior. For these juveniles, the rationales that underpin juvenile detention—deterrence, incapacitation, retribution, and rehabilitation—are often less relevant. Many of the realities of juvenile detention, however, such as negative peer influence and disrupted schooling, may still apply.


  1. Gatti, Uberto, Richard Tremblay, and Frank Vitaro. “Iatrogenic Effect of Juvenile Justice.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, v.50/8 (2009).
  2. Halsey, Mark. “On Confinement: Resident and Inmate Perspectives of Secure Care and Imprisonment.” Probation Journal, v.54/4 (2007).
  3. Weatherburn, Don, Sumitra Vignaendra, and Andrew McGrath. “The Specific Deterrent Effect of Custodial Penalties on Juvenile Re-Offending.” Contemporary Issues in Crime and Justice, v.132 (2009).

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