Secure Confinement

Section 3.8

Judicial Officers Should Not Securely Detain or Confine Youth at Any Point in the Status Offense Process

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Research has shown the damaging effects detention or secure confinement can have on children, whether as a detention method pre-court or as a form of punishment after adjudication.  Children who are securely detained are more likely to become more deeply involved in the juvenile or criminal justice system and are more likely to re-enter the criminal justice system than children who participate in community-based programs.  Detention also has a negative and significant impact on many facets of the child’s life.  A child who has been securely detained has a higher likelihood of suffering from physical or mental health problems, struggling in or not completing school and having difficulty in the labor market later in life.1  In addition, placing a child charged with a noncriminal status offense in secure confinement with children who have been accused of serious criminal offenses may expose the child to negative influences and behaviors that could lead to re-entry into the status offense system or entry into the delinquency system.2

Moreover, research on adolescent development shows that young people’s brains continue to mature well into their twenties.3  As a result, adolescents are more likely than adults to be influenced by peers, engage in risky and impulsive behaviors, experience mood swings, or have reactions that are stronger or weaker than situations warrant4 (See Section 1.2).  Courts and other stakeholders in the status offense system must acknowledge these developmental issues and recognize that adolescents sometimes make poor decisions.  Using detention or secure confinement as a way to curb these behaviors not only fails to recognize what research shows about adolescent development, but carries more risks than benefits for the child, his or her family and community.

A child who has been securely detained has a higher likelihood of suffering from physical or mental health problems, struggling in or not completing school and having difficulty in the labor market later in life.1  

There are many things judges can do to better assist children and families in need by utilizing alternative services and approaches to detention or secure confinement.  For example, judges can:

  • In cases where the child has violated an order of the court, critically assess the cause of the child’s court order violation and determine whether community-based services or treatments may best help the child and family; being mindful of the roles trauma and past victimization, adolescent development, mental health disorders or under diagnosed or under treated disabilities can play in childhood behaviors.  (See Section 1.2, Section 1.4, and Section 1. 11 for more information).
  • As discussed in Section 3.11 determine whether other laws or entitlements may offer viable alternatives to detention or place restrictions on the use of detention.  For example, the Indian Child Welfare Act applies if an Indian child is placed out of the home and requires that certain pre-requisites be met prior to placement.
  • Explain to parties to the case, as well as families, the dangers of incarceration and the better successes that are born from community-based service alternatives.  Doing so, particularly with families unfamiliar with the justice system, can empower them to help identify the best ways to support the child and avoid deeper justice system involvement.
  • Seek out respite or kinship care alternatives to detention, particularly when there is high conflict in the home that raises safety concerns for the child or if the child is running away repeatedly.5
  • Utilize available community-based service alternatives, such as those that take a “system of care” or wraparound approach that would individualize service plans to families’ needs, promote family participation and coordinate services and planning.
  • Seek to adopt and replicate the principles and core strategies used through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), which promotes collaboration between justice system stakeholders to reduce the use of unnecessary detentions by, among other things, using accurate data, supporting new case processing forms, enhancing community-based programs and implementing policies and programs that reduce disproportionate minority contact.6
  • Create stakeholder work groups or advisory boards to assess how and when detention is used in status offense cases and develop strategies to identify and implement alternatives to detention and secure confinement.7

1 Holman, B., et al., (2007) The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities. Justice Policy Institute, Annie E. Casey Foundation.

2 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “Community-Based Alternatives to Secure Detention and Incarceration” in Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders Best Practices Database. Available at:

3 Coalition for Juvenile Justice. (2006) “Applying Research to Practice Brief: What Are the Implications of Adolescent Brain Development for Juvenile Justice?” Available at:

4 Id.

5 See, e.g., Mogulescu, S. et al. (2008) Making Court the Last Resort: A New Focus for Supporting Families in Crisis. New York, New York: Vera Institute of Justice (discussing the use of respite care in several jurisdictions).

7 Coalition for Juvenile Justice. (2012). Positive Power: Exercising Judicial Leadership to Prevent Court Involvement and Incarceration of Non-Delinquent Youth. Washington, DC. Available at: (discussing many different approaches courts have taken to end the use of detention and secure confinement of youth charged with status offenses).