Juvenile Hall Only Creates More Convicts

I have been working most of my adult life to reduce the number of kids locked up in jails. It has been an uphill battle in most communities, especially in the last decade when we have passed legislation allowing juveniles to be tried as adults. A new report is out by the reputable Annie E. Casey Foundation that supports my belief that juvenile hall is not rehabilitative and is ineffective in preventing future criminal behavior.

The report, “No Place for Kids – The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration” compiles decades of research and data on juvenile incarceration across the US and presents some strong arguments against its effectiveness.

Unlike adult jails, juvenile facilities are intended to rehabilitate, not punish. Juveniles are only to be locked up if they are deemed to be a danger to society or a flight risk. Unfortunately, kids are often locked up for other reasons. This study found that only 12 percent of the 150,000 youth placed in juvenile detention nationally committed serious violent crimes. Additionally, youth placed in juvenile hall are five times more likely to be incarcerated for subsequent offenses than youth who are placed in a community supervision program. We have found this to be true at Bill Wilson Center, where 90 percent of the youth who are diverted from juvenile hall and placed in our residential program report no further involvement in the juvenile justice system. 

The report also argues that reducing incarceration does not undermine public safety. We have seen this right here in Santa Clara County, where over the past few years we have been reducing the number of kids in juvenile hall, yet juvenile crime rates continue to drop. The same is true for the State of California. We are not only wasting the opportunity to help these kids, we are wasting money. Each juvenile probation officer costs $200,000 with benefits. We can hire three to four counselors at Bill Wilson Center for the same cost. Using best practices to serve youth in the community is more cost-effective and has better outcomes for juvenile offenders. 

Possibly saddest of all, there is a disturbing trend of violence and abuse in U.S. juvenile correctional facilities. A 2008 study found 13,000 claims of reported abuse between 2004 and 2007. Another national study of confined youth reported more than 3,000 cases of youth being victimized sexually by staff or peers while incarcerated. It’s no wonder kids come out of juvenile hall worse off than when they went in when you combine all of these system failures.

We need to invest more in community services and decrease our reliance on juvenile hall.  Let’s keep the non-violent offenders out of juvenile detention and provide the needed services to make them more productive, better adjusted, and help them do better in school. The long-term outcome: fewer adults in prison, as these youth become self-sufficient and law-abiding adults.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth. Under her leadership, Bill Wilson Center works to prevent poverty by connecting youth to employment, education, housing, and healthy relationships.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.


  1. Until parents step up and parent their children, Juvenile Hall will continue to be the answer. Do you know how many times in my career I have had parents actually ask me to take their kid to the Hall??

    As a society we have allowed decisions of justices in the court system to permeate their decisions on political and personal beliefs to a point where we have legally forced a lax standard of behavior.

    Today it is all about “rights of the accused” and not “rights of the victimized”. There at one time used to be a balance. Now, it is all but deteriorated to favor the criminal element.

    Until the issue as a whole is dealt with, it is unfair to place blame solely on incarceration. It may be not PC to say it, but let us be frank, there are many factors that contribute to this issue. Irresponsible procreation is by far the largest cause!

    You cant fix stupid by throwing money at it, creating a program for it, or crying foul when you get caught and now don’t want to be punished.

    • I would like to know the recidivism rate for those juveniles that commit crimes that end up in the adult system.  I would like to see Santa Clara specific data.  The stats mentioned in the article are nationwide (it appears) and are studies that are mentioned seem to be biased to bolster the organizations prime objectives. Not to demean the CEO’s article, but it appears to be a plug for reasons why her organization should receive more funds.  Having said that, I’m confident the Bill Wilson Center is doing a fine job and is an organization that is needed for some, just not all. 

      Also, current data for the juvenile system seems to be missing on the County website.

      • Yes, I do brag about Bill Wilson Center, but I also recognize our limitations.  Studies show that many off these juvenile offenders don’t do well in group home settings like our short-term residential program.  The first choice is to be kept at home with an array of support services (something we currently don’t have in this county except for those with a mental health diagnosis),  Second choice, if a kid cannot return home, is for the youth to be placed in a highly trained, professional foster home with case management, skills training, family therapy, and parenting training.  We have a limited number of these homes because it is difficult to recruit foster parents in this area who qualify and are willing to go through the extensive training.  If you know of any interested individuals who might make good foster parents, have them checked out our website at http://www.billwilsoncenter.com.  I know, another plug for my agency!

        If you want help with some links to data on Santa Clara juvenile justice trend I can send them.  They are often buried in committee reports to the Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee or to the Superior Court site for the Juvenile Justice Commission.

    • Until parents step up and parent their children, Juvenile Hall will continue to be the answer.

      Z How about instead of putting the kids in jail for the parents not “stepping up” we put the parents in jail?

      Sort of paraphrasing my dad here but, “It’s like blaming the barnacles for the boat being slow, when somebody didn’t scrape them off the hull in the first place”

  2. Just to give an on-point comment to the discussion…

    Following county politics, cousin Dave a while back helped enact a policy that juviniles under 13 will no longer be incarserated for non-violent crime.  So there is some progress being made.

    • Yes, Supervisor Cortese did lead the effort to remove children 12 and under from Juvenile Hall. I applaud his new policy but it is difficult to implement without the needed community options.  I also agree that children need to be held accountable for their criminal behavior.  And, many times kids are out of control and parents want them locked up.  The problem is that all the research shows that putting children in a locked setting does not prevent them from committing a new crime when they return home.  Someone needs to work with the family and youth to help them change the negative behavior.  There are some best practices out there that work.  I know there are no easy answers here.  But, juvenile crime is down and the number of kids locked up in Santa Clara County is down.  The probation department is doing some great work here.

    • As I understand it, youth have to commit one of the 777 crimes to qualify for commitment to a state facility.  But that doesn’t apply to county ranch and camp facilities, where several thousand California youth are confined every day.

  3. While the debate here is a good one, I think everyone is missing the point. Juvenile hall is intended to “reform” youth offenders. The research shows that it does the opposite – kids come out worse than they would if they were to be placed in alternative community programs that would get to the bottom of problem behavior.

  4. Seems like I’ve heard the same points made about our adult criminal justice system which neither seems to deter crime nor rehabilitate criminals who serve time.

    Juvenile offenders might be different in that they can break the pattern if they have positive role models and options to better themselves and feel that this is worthwhile in terms of their intrinsic values versus extrinsic values.

    I suppose we could also take a couple of steps back and ask what the whole criminal justice system is doing if they aren’t rehabilitating nor proving a major deterrent to criminals? 

    I guess it could be worse and some folks are “out of circulation” for awhile, which has to have some impact if only as a “cooling off period” for some of the folks involved from family, friends and others.  I don’t suppose anyone glamorizes being a “thug” and takes pride in going to juvenile hall?

    In terms of alternatives, perhaps foster care could be offered by some who otherwise would not consider it, such as allowing some public workers to draw pensions earlier than otherwise if they engage in social beneficial activities like hosting a foster child, volunteering at local schools, etc.  Perhaps it could even be opened to folks in the Social Security system where an earlier retirement at a higher level would be possible for the same kind of commitment.

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