Juvenile detention: numbers can be deceiving

Juvenile detention: numbers can be deceiving
Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash

By Suzanne Potter
This story was originally published by Public News Service.

WASHINGTON — America locked up almost a quarter-million children in 2019, according to a new report called “Too Many Closed Doors” from the Sentencing Project.

In the past, policymakers have relied on the annual point-in-time counts, which are about five times lower.

Josh Rovner, senior advocacy associate for The Sentencing Project and the report’s author, said we have been looking at the wrong numbers.

“As of one day in 2019, there were about 36,000 kids who were in youth facilities,” Rovner reported. “And the actual number of kids who were in the facilities over the course of the year was closer to 240,000, and that is actually an undercount.”

State data showed juvenile detention peaked in 2017 at more than 4,700 kids behind bars. The numbers have gone steadily down and last year stood at about 2,500, partially due to fewer arrests during the pandemic.

A spokesperson for the state attributed the improvement to the expansion of juvenile assessment centers in Las Vegas, where youth accused of nonviolent offenses are evaluated and matched with community programs to help them.

The report found kids who are detained have a hard time when they return to school or home, and are actually more likely to be rearrested in the future.

Rovner pointed out higher police presence in low-income neighborhoods of color leads to a disproportionate number of arrests and detentions for youths of color.

“Overall, one out of every four kids who are sent to court are detained at the outset,” Rovner explained. “Now, for white youth, that is one out of every five. For Black and Latino youth, closer to 30%. And that is not connected to the seriousness of the offense.”

Nevada is working to limit the use of detention for youths picked up on “status” offenses such as truancy and running away.