What Happens at a Juvenile Detention Center?

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While a juvenile center is sometimes called “juvenile jail,” it isn’t the same as a prison for minors. The facilities focus on teaching children better habits and giving them the support and stability they need to make better choices. Still, a day in the life of a juvenile detention center child doesn’t resemble a day at most boarding schools or even most military academies. It’s a negative experience for most children.

What Is Juvenile Detention?

Criminal offenders under age 18 typically do not face the same punishments as adults. Children are still growing and learning. They are more easily influenced and quicker to make mistakes. The justice system recognizes this by applying different consequences for minors and adults. One option for punishment is juvenile detention.

A judge sentences an offender to confinement in a facility with other minors found guilty of breaking certain laws. In this way, it’s like “juvenile jail.” Often, the programs seem like prisons. Rooms usually have locking doors. Residents typically have roommates. There might be uniform requirements, and those uniforms might look like those worn by adult inmates.

In fact, some children convicted as juvenile offenders or those who are awaiting trial are housed in facilities that also house adult inmates. States set their own conditions, but it’s strongly encouraged that minors are kept completely separate from adult populations in these conditions.

Read More: Juvenile Detention Center Facts

Schedules and Restrictions in Juvenile Facilities

Schedules and responsibilities are strictly defined in juvenile facilities. Restrictions exist as to who can call or visit residents,contraband items and activities. Breaking the rules can lead to criminal charges, extended sentences or even time in the adult prison system.

What Is Juvenile Hall?

Juvenile detention has many different names. Some are state-specific while others are nicknames or names from the past that authorities don’t use anymore. The various terms include:

  • Juvenile detention.
  • Juvenile hall.
  • Juvie.
  • Juvenile jail.
  • Youth correction.
  • Youth confinement.
  • Residential placement.

Other types of juvenile detention centers exist, including treatment centers, group homes, wildlife camps, boot camps, training centers and others. However, more than 90 percent of juvenile court-appointed residents live in detention centers.

Kids in juvenile detention are often assigned their own nicknames or state-determined designations as well. Some of these are derogatory terms, such as “juvie girl,” which is a stereotypical representative of a violent, oversexualized young female offender. Others are new names that states have created to reflect a change in attitude between adult and juvenile confinement, such as the transition from “juvenile delinquents” to “juvenile offenders.”

Incarceration Rates Have Been Falling

The attitude toward these facilities has changed as well, with incarceration rates falling sharply over the past 10 years. This is due in part to research that demonstrates a correlation between juvenile confinement and serving time in prison as an adult. One study from MIT demonstrated that 40 percent of children who are placed in detention centers end up in prison by age 25.

What Is the First Day of Juvenile Detention Like?

While every facility is different, many institutions place their procedures online to help prepare incoming residents and their families for the experiences awaiting them. This description is a common scenario at these facilities, but it may not represent the policies and procedures of a particular building:

  • A law enforcement officer escorts the new resident inside the building. The minor is often handcuffed for the sake of preventing an escape.
  • Inside, intake staff check the youth into the facility and remove restraints, when possible, along with belts, shoes and, perhaps, clothing. Some facilities conduct a strip search while others do not. 
  • The new residents are then given a chance to shower and change into their new uniforms. This sometimes happens in a group setting. The guards escort the residents to their rooms or bunks where they may be alone or have one or several roommates.
  • Juveniles who are thought to pose a danger to themselves or others typically are placed in solitary confinement.

What a Typical Day in a Juvenile Detention Center?

Generally speaking, days begin early at detention facilities, between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. Residents travel together in groups monitored by adult aides or guards from their rooms or bunk areas and eat breakfast in a cafeteria setting. The state sets nutritional guidelines for the food served. Residents with medical restrictions receive special meals and medication.

After breakfast, they travel as a group back to their rooms or to scheduled activities. School instruction usually lasts from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. with periodic breaks for bathroom, lunch and physical activity. Aside from intense security measures and strict guidelines for student behavior, the experience is similar to public school.

Residents often have free time after school during which they can watch movies, receive visitors, make calls and interact with other residents. They often have responsibilities as well, such as cleaning their bunks or common areas. In most facilities, daily showering is required.

Earning Privileges in Juvenile Detention

Along with responsibilities, residents also receive certain privileges the longer they prove themselves trustworthy. Examples may include:

  • Extra phone calls.
  • Later bedtimes.
  • Movie or game requests.
  • Time outdoors.
  • Special visits.
  • Day passes.

Many facilities have a structured point system outlining how residents earn and lose privileges.

What Can I Take With Me to a Juvenile Detention Facility?

The rules regarding what residents can bring to a “juvenile jail” depend upon the rules of the facility. The administration usually provides parents with an extensive list of allowed and contraband items. Common items that residents cannot bring with them include:

  • Money.
  • Cellphones.
  • Trading cards.
  • Toys.

Some facilities allow parents to add money to a child’s commissary account for buying snacks and personal care items. In other centers, kids have to earn points.

Is Juvenile Detention Helpful or Harmful to Children?

While “juvenile jail” is aimed at rehabilitation, it’s a negative experience that comes with real risks. A survey demonstrates that:

  • 42 percent of residents fear physical attacks.
  • 45 percent have experienced violence perpetrated by staff.
  • 30 percent have experienced isolation as a means of punishment.

Studies also show that the more time a child stays in confinement, the greater the chances he will be incarcerated as an adult and struggle to maintain healthy relationships.

Are Kids Sexually Assaulted in Juvenile Detention?

Not surprisingly, the quality of life for offenders varies greatly from one center to the next. The worst conditions often occur in facilities in which children are held in the same buildings as adult offenders. These facilities may not do enough to protect minors from the gang- and drug-related activities in the centers.

Unfortunately, physical and sexual assaults occur in juvenile facilities just as they do in adult prisons. Approximately 10 percent of offenders suffer a sexual assault in detention. Studies show that LGBTQ+ residents, former victims of sexual assault and residents with gang affiliations are most likely to suffer sexual abuse.

Age Restrictions for Criminal Prosecution by State

States that prevent criminal prosecution don’t ignore problem situations. Children who commit certain offenses might enter state care facilities for juveniles with behavioral or emotional problems, or they are enrolled in family counseling and other rehabilitative services.

A lawyer can help the family of a child in any state seek alternative punishment to incarceration. However, it’s easier in the following states, which protect children of certain ages from criminal prosecution:

  • Arizona – 10.
  • Arkansas – 10.
  • California – 12.
  • Colorado – 10.
  • Connecticut – 7.
  • Kansas – 10.
  • Louisiana – 10.
  • Massachusetts – 12.
  • Minnesota – 10.
  • Mississippi – 10.
  • Nebraska – 11.
  • Nevada – 10.
  • New York – 7.
  • North Carolina – 6.
  • North Dakota – 10.
  • Pennsylvania – 10.
  • South Dakota – 10.
  • Texas – 10.
  • Vermont – 10.
  • Washington – 8.
  • Wisconsin – 10.

California has no age limitation regarding most sex crimes, and Vermont has no age limitation on murder charges. However, other states have enacted laws making certain offenses “un-jailable” to counteract the number of children confined because of low-level, non-violent crimes.

What Is the Youngest Age for Juvenile Detention?

The federal government allows states to set their own laws as to age and criminal responsibility. Many states protect the rights of vulnerable minors by setting a minimum age for criminalization, relying instead on rehabilitative efforts when a child has committed a serious crime. Several countries set the minimum age for convictions at 14 or higher, including:

  • Russia.
  • China.
  • Germany.
  • Spain.
  • Italy.
  • Sweden.

Unfortunately, over half of U.S. states establish no minimum age for juvenile detention. Several have no restrictions on charging a child as an adult.

Ages of Children in Juvenile Detention

Children as young as 4 have been arrested for petty vandalism, assault or sex-related crimes. In fact, in the U.S., the youngest person sentenced to a life sentence was only 12 years old.

The majority of children in juvenile detention are older teenagers. Sixty-nine percent are 16 years or older. Approximately 500 juvenile detainees nationwide are younger than 12.

How Does Racism Play a Role in Juvenile Incarceration?

As with the adult prison system, black and Native American inmates are grossly over-represented. While blacks make up roughly 14 percent of youth in the U.S., 42 percent of African-American boys are in detention. Black girls make up 32 percent of placement.

Whereas less than 1 percent of youth are Native American, 3 percent of girls and 1.5 percent of boys in detention are Native American. Raising these concerns in court may help convince a judge to consider other options.

What Are the Legal Alternatives to Juvenile Detention?

Depending on the state, a judge may have several options available that an offender may request through a lawyer. Rarely will state law demand confinement, and other types of punishment might serve to protect the public while helping a minor learn the error of her ways, including:

  • Formal warning.
  • Making restitution.
  • Community service.
  • In-home confinement.
  • Foster care or group home care.
  • Individual and family therapy.
  • Substance abuse treatment.
  • Probation.

The consequences may include a combination of options as well. A lawyer can help a youth offender put together a reasonable request depending on the charges and family resources. Some options, such as in-home confinement, can cost several hundred dollars a month. Failure to pay for those services can count as additional violations.

The "Missouri Model"

Experts point to the “Missouri Model,” which focuses on therapy and education to keep kids from becoming adults in the prison system. By combining counseling for individuals and families and by enrolling residents in formal education and job training programs, this juvenile system has effectively saved the state millions of dollars and vastly improved the quality of life for youth offenders throughout their lifetimes.

How Can You Stay Out of Detention After You Do Your Time?

Sadly, many of the children who are released from juvenile detention find themselves back inside after a month or two without their having committed additional crimes. Instead, because of unreasonable probationary terms, kids are going back into detention over unmade beds and so-called “bad attitudes.”

These are called “status offenses” or “technical violations” and account for a quarter of the offenders currently in treatment. In some states, this figure is as high as 30 percent. Legal teams can help prevent returns by arguing for fairer treatment, but ultimately, it’s up to the offenders to understand and abide by the terms of their release.

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About the Author

With over 20 years of professional writing experience, Hilary Ferrand knows her way around the interwebs. Find out more by following her at LinkedIn.