Youth Detention Should Be Limited

Youth detention must be utilized carefully to make sure low-level, non-violent youthful offenders do not move deeper into the criminal justice system. A new report by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families says juvenile detention – the short-term involuntary holding of juveniles – is often the gateway to longer-term incarceration and must be used thoughtfully.

According to the report, “Why Detention Is Not Always The Answer,” the appropriate purpose of detention is to ensure that youth appear for court hearings and do not re-offend while awaiting their hearing. In practice, however, detention is also used for other purposes in Arkansas: to ensure that services are in place for the youth and his or her family, or to serve as a “wake-up call” for youth. And too often, youth are held in these jails because jurisdictions lack more humane or less restrictive alternatives. Relying on incarceration instead of more effective and appropriate responses to youthful transgressions can be very harmful to children who are already facing challenges at home and in school.

Paul Kelly, senior policy analyst at AACF and author of the report, says a large number of jailed youth are non-violent, low-level offenders.

“The goal here, really, is to make sure children don’t end up back in the system,” says Kelly. “That’s harder to do when they start off there. Being detained has a real impact on youthful offenders. There are other, more constructive ways to deal with some of those cases.”

AACF Executive Director Rich Huddleston says two counties in Northwest Arkansas are looking at alternatives to detention.

“Officials in Benton and Washington counties are looking at ways to better handle youth detention,” Huddleston says. “These initiatives are in the early stages but are showing promise.”

The report makes recommendations for reforms. Among them:

  • Maintain uniform and reliable data throughout the state to evaluate the appropriate use of detention.
  • Examine the reasons for the overrepresentation of African-American youth in detention admissions and use that information to implement strategies to address racial and ethnic disparities.
  • Develop alternatives to detention for low- and medium-risk youth.
  • Develop structured ways of responding to violations of probation and other court orders using sanctions other than detention along with incentives.
  • Develop memorandums of understanding between local law enforcement, courts and schools to develop appropriate school referrals based on guidelines provided by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education.