What Happens at a Juvenile Detention Center?

By Claire Gillespie - Updated March 15, 2018
Child's hands on fence

The American criminal justice system commits youthful offenders to secure facilities known as juvenile detention centers or youth detention centers. They may be detained on a short-term basis while awaiting a court hearing or transfer to another facility, or serving a sentence after a court decision. The age limit for juvenile detention varies by state, but most states have an upper age of 17.

What Is a Juvenile Detention Center?

Most young people at a juvenile detention center are there because of committing unlawful acts, including violent crimes, property crimes, drug-related offenses, public disturbances and even homicide. A small percentage of detainees are there for status offenses, which are acts that are against the law for youths but not for adults, such as truancy or running away from home. Whereas some juveniles remain in their communities and go through community-based rehabilitative programs, others may be considered to be at greater risk of reoffending or harming themselves or others and so are deemed most suitable for a juvenile detention center. Young people who break the law are treated differently than adult offenders because they are still developing and have different needs than adults. The ultimate goal of a juvenile detention center is to educate, rehabilitate and protect young people, and to encourage them to make positive life changes.

Arriving at a Juvenile Detention Center

Most juveniles are taken to a detention center by police and admitted through a secure entrance. The admittance procedure typically includes removal of handcuffs if they were used, shoes, belts, jewelry and other personal items. Most go through security checks via pat-downs and metal detectors. After general information is taken from the young person, he will take a shower and be issued clothing, assigned to a room and given bedding. Every facility is different, but most have dormitory areas and separate cells segregated based on sex. For example, Clallam County Juvenile Services in Washington contains four dormitory areas, or pods, two of which have four cells and two have five cells. Each cell contains bunks, a desk, a stool, a sink and a toilet. Youths will only have to share cells if the facility is at maximum capacity.

Daily Life at a Juvenile Detention Center

What happens in a typical juvenile detention center depends on the facility. Each center has its own daily schedule, but most follow a similar pattern. At youth detention centers in Georgia, youths begin the day by making their beds and dressing. They eat breakfast and clean their rooms for inspection. Then they begin classes, which total 330 minutes per day and include academic instruction, lunch and physical education.

After school, youths spend time in therapy, such as family focus group, drug and alcohol group, family intervention training and anger management. After dinner, they have supervised leisure activities, such as watching television, arts and crafts and scheduled visitation. The day is extremely structured, with set times for morning release from rooms for breakfast, school, bathroom breaks, lunch, free time, dinner, visiting hours, mandatory showers and bedtime. Each facility sets its own visitation rules, but is likely to provide visiting hours several evening per week. Visits, which are optional, are typically brief – 20 to 30 minutes. Generally only parents and legal guardians are permitted to visit without prior approval from a counselor, but attorneys and other service providers or mental health counselors can visit whenever necessary.

About the Author

Claire Gillespie writes about health, science, home and parenting. She has bylines on SELF, SheKnows, The Washington Post, Vice and more.

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