Marcus, 19, former teen prisoner, on his college campus. He's now an advocate for juvenile justice reform. 

The Shocking Truth About Kids and Jail

More than 50,000 kids are detained in our juvenile justice system—most for nonviolent charges, and incarceration doesn't help them stay out of trouble afterward. Now, critics and teens who survived prison are asking: Why are we still putting kids in jail? 

For 16-year-old Marcus, junior year at his Milwaukee, Wisconsin high school should have been amazing. After spending his entire childhood in abusive and neglectful foster homes, he was finally living with a caring family. He'd made honor roll, spent his afternoons linebacking his school's football team, and played the occasional video game with his foster brother. "It was stable, which was something I'd never had before," Marcus says.

Inside, though, he was struggling. “If all you’ve ever known as a child is destruction, you absorb that,” Marcus says. “Things came to a boiling point and I got arrested in 2014. It was my first time ever getting in serious trouble with the law, but I got the maximum penalty for my age.” Marcus was sent to the Lincoln Hills School for Boys, a youth prison hours away in central Wisconsin. “I don’t think I really understood what I had done until my first night,” he says. “They closed the door and I looked around: I had a little desk. I had a plastic chair. I didn’t have a restroom. I couldn’t walk out when I wanted to. I was going, ‘Wow, I’m in jail.’”

It wasn’t the life Marcus wanted, and he knew that being on the inside was going to make his path harder, not easier. That’s because when it comes to rehabilitation, our 100-year-old youth prison system is broken. According to years of research, kids who get locked up are more likely to re-offend and less likely to graduate from high school or go to college. They’re more likely to end up jailed as adults than peers who commit the same crimes but are dealt with in other ways. (For one example, see “The Power of Facing a Mistake,” below.) “Most people agree that when a young person does something bad, they should be held accountable,” says Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Youth First Initiative, an advocacy group that campaigns against youth incarceration. “But locking kids up doesn’t work. Not for them, not for society."

That is why in the last decade, lawmakers around the country started questioning this older model—and asking for advice on what would work from those who would know: teens like Marcus, who have actually been through the system and made it out the other side. 

The Road to Juvie

The problems with juvenile detention, critics say, start with who ends up there. Statistics say some kids—for example, those who, like Marcus, come from families in turmoil—are more likely to face incarceration: Almost half of kids who go into foster care will be convicted of a crime by age 20—and not necessarily because they misbehave more. “Research shows most kids engage in delinquent behavior during their teens,” says Ryan. “It's normal adolescent behavior, and most kids age out of it. But where a stable family tries to protect you, a grouphome operator calls the cops.” And in schools, with more officers present than in years past, infractions that would have been handled in the principal’s office are now police matters, resulting in what critics call the “school-to-jail pipeline.”

What’s more, African-American, Latino, and Native American teens are also disproportionately represented in the system. They’re up to five times more likely to do jail time than white kids. LGBTQ kids are twice as likely to be incarcerated as their straight peers. And poorer kids are more likely to do time for the same crimes than wealthier teens. “Something that would get a privileged kid counseling will land a poor kid in jail,” says Jacksonville, Florida, youth advocate Renata Hannans, author of P.S. Never Give Up Hope, a collection of short autobiographies by incarcerated teens. “They just don’t have the same resources to defend themselves.”

Not that the crimes that send most teens to detention are Forensic Files-worthy. “There’s often an assumption that if a young person's locked up, they did something really bad,” says Ryan. “But the vast majority don’t pose a risk to public safety; they’re there because they have many needs.” Two-thirds are in for nonviolent charges, like vandalism or drug possession. Others get jailed for crimes that wouldn’t even be illegal if they were adults, like running away or breaking curfew. And a lot of times, the crimes are more defiance than delinquency: In North Carolina, for example, the leading reasons teens end up behind bars are probation offenses and contempt of court. A kid who mouths off to a judge is a kid who’s going to jail.


Taylor, 18, released last year, volunteers to help other kids in detention write their stories. 


The system is even harsher to kids found guilty of more serious crimes— most of whom act alongside adults who, ironically, may spend fewer years in jail. Taylor was 14 and homeless in Los Angeles in 2014 when she and her mother were arrested following a vicious fight with her mom’s boyfriend. Their attorneys told them they could be facing life sentences. “But if a middleaged adult gets life, that could be 30 years,” says Shaena Fazal, National Policy Director for services organization Youth Advocate Programs (YAP). “For a teen, it’s 60 years—twice as long."

Only by a fluke did Taylor manage to avoid getting tried as an adult: a local advocate heard about her case and convinced a university law clinic to take it on. “Most of the girls I was in with weren’t so lucky,” she says. “They went straight to adult court, and they’re either still waiting for trial or they’ve started their time. They didn’t even get a chance to fight.” Meanwhile, tried as a juvenile and released in 2016, Taylor graduated from high school in June. She’s now attending college and volunteering with a nonprofit she connected with while behind bars: Inside Out Writers, which helps kids in detention write out—and process—their own stories.

Putting Youth First Means Closing Youth Prisons
Why is the youth prison system so problematic? This video from the Youth First Initiative digs in and discusses one key solution: closing youth prisons.

What Happens in Jail 

Hunter, who was a small-town Wisconsin 16-year-old when he was imprisoned after a series of run-ins with the law, remembers one particular night vividly. “Literally five guards were in a cell just beating an inmate,” he says. “It was worse than I’d ever seen in the streets. Stuff like that, it’s just wrong.” (That facility is now under federal investigation.) 


Hunter, 19, who got out seven months ago, is apprenticing as a carpenter. 

The fact is, youth prisons can be dangerous places: Since 2009, lawsuits and investigations have uncovered recurring abuse in at least 29 states. About a quarter are dangerously overcrowded. And most lack resources to truly care for the high-needs kids they house, about 75 percent of whom have serious mental health issues.

Ironically, youth prisons remove one major thing that science tells us does help kids in trouble: the support of friends and family. Hunter says he was lucky. “I have a pretty big family, so somebody could come up and visit quite often,” he says. “My family was always my motivation to stay straight and get out. I feel like the kids without family support tried the least. But most of those locked up with me were from a five-hour drive away; some families couldn’t afford to take a day off work or buy a bus pass.”

What works best, advocates say, is limiting incarceration to violent offenders (and putting them in smaller, treatmentoriented facilities) and investing in nonresidential programs that wrap their care around kids’ families, schools, and communities. “Anything done in a youth prison can be done in the community, only better,” says Fazal. The problem? There just aren’t enough programs, leaving judges few options between probation and incarceration.

Luckily, many states, including Connecticut, Illinois, and Virginia, are working to close outdated youth jails. In Wisconsin, reports of abuses at Lincoln Hills led to a raid by the state Department of Justice and an ongoing investigation by the FBI. When Marcus found out that legislators were looking at closing Lincoln Hills, he spoke out about his experiences there and became a face of the campaign. In West Virginia, families of former youth inmates helped stop a proposal for a detention center that would have housed kids as young as 4 years old.

Back on the Outside 

The details of the court cases of the kids in this story are sealed, a protective measure meant to give former juvenile offenders a true chance to start over. Still, incarceration has a way of sticking. “An employer learns a kid was in the juvenile system, and he’s fired. Or a college finds out, and admission gets taken away,” says Ryan. “I’ve seen it happen.”

So has Marcus. Against the odds, he secured a football scholarship after getting out in 2015—only to see it disappear when the college found out he was still on probation. “It was two days before I was supposed to leave,” he says. “That was a crusher.” Today, he’s at another college and back on the football field, but Lincoln Hills hasn’t totally left him. “It’s crazy the amount of times my record comes up,” he says. “Not long ago I got pulled over, and the cop says, ‘Make sure you let your PO [parole officer] know.’ For a simple pull over! They see I was once in trouble and think, ‘He’s a criminal.’”

For his part, Hunter has been back home seven months. “I’m apprenticing as a carpenter, I paid off my car, I want to buy a house,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of growing up. But every time I walk outside at night, I think about my freedom to do that. I just look up at the sky and think, ‘I can’t lose this again.’”

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