Juvenile delinquency[a] has potentially high stakes for both individuals and society as a whole. Delinquency is linked to higher crime rates in adulthood and other negative outcomes. One estimate suggests that between 50 and 75 percent of adolescents who have spent time in juvenile detention centers are incarcerated later in life.
The juvenile justice system is based on the premise that adolescents have needs and capacities different from adults’. Adolescents are still developing mentally, physically, and emotionally, and they are forming their identities. As a result, juveniles who break the law should be treated differently than adults who do. Following a rise in juvenile crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, ‘get tough on crime’ policies led to an increase in the number of children being tried as adults and being committed to adult facilities. Such settings can be harmful to adolescents. Juveniles may face higher risks of rape, assault, and suicide when placed in adult prisons, although reliable statistics are lacking. Multiple studies show, however, that those who are transferred to adult facilities are more likely to reoffend.
Even in juvenile facilities, though, children may be victimized by staff members. According to a national survey conducted in 2012, an estimated 10 percent of young people in juvenile facilities reported sexual victimization by staff members or a peer. Moreover, most facilities in the United States do not deal effectively with the issues that lead youth to offend. Recidivism rates are comparable to those of adult offenders.
Mental health needs are often urgent for adolescents in the justice system. Many have mental illness (estimates range as high as 70 percent, with prevalence among girls as high as 80 percent, compared with 20 percent among the total adolescent population., In juvenile detention facilities, many of these problems go untreated or are dealt with inadequately. Suicide rates in juvenile detention facilities are more than four times higher than for adolescents overall. Suicide is even more likely for adolescents confined in isolation.