Each year, more than 2 million arrests are made of youth, resulting in approximately 300,000 to 600,000 admissions to secure detention. Of these children detained, two thirds are racial or ethnic minorities, arrested at rates that are out of proportion to the rate of their unlawful behavior. Roughly a quarter of children detained are acutely mentally ill. Eighty percent of girls detained report physical abuse and 50 percent report sexual abuse. JDAI's vision is to handle these children differently and appropriately.

Studies of juvenile detention reveal a system that is arbitrary, discriminatory, and ineffective. In the decade before JDAI was launched, detention populations increased by more than 70 percent, even though there was no corresponding increase in juvenile crime. By the beginning of the 1990's, two out of every three youth admitted to secure detention was entering a place that was crowded, that could not provide the kinds of custody and care that case law and professional standards require. Less than a third of youth in detention were charged with violent crimes. And, by 1995, almost two-thirds of detained youth were youth of color, a percentage that was disproportionate to both their percentage in the general population and their percentage of youth arrested.

Detention is a growing expense in most jurisdictions. In some places, the average cost to operate a detention bed exceeds $70,000 annually, and experts estimate that the cost of building, financing and operating a single bed over twenty years is in the range of $1.25 to $1.5 million. As expensive to operate as they are, detention centers do not ensure the rehabilitation of the young people they hold nor do they always ensure their safety while detained.

Research has shown that lowering juvenile detention populations are commensurate with improved public safety strategies. Research also shows that there is a likelihood kids will have a much greater chance of avoiding adult criminal if they are diverted from secure detention to community alternatives.

  • Research by the Oregon Social Learning Center has shown that when youth are congregated together for treatment, they are more likely to have worse short term behavior and fare worse as adults in their employment, family stability, and interpersonal relationships than youth treated individually.
  • Another study of youth in Arkansas showed that prior incarceration was the strongest predictor of future incarceration.



The Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) in Massachusetts works to ensure that “the right youth, is in the right place, for the right reason.”


This information is provided by the Massachusetts Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative.