Editor’s note: This page was updated Feb. 7, 2024, with descriptive wording corrections throughout.
A juvenile court’s decision to remove young people from their homes and place them in state-funded residential facilities in response to delinquent behavior generally fails to reduce future crime. And, in many cases, that action will increase children's likelihood to re-offend or drop out of school. Data also shows that residential placement and its corresponding impacts fall disproportionately on children of color compared with White children. Rather than spending tens, and sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars per child annually for disappointing results, policy leaders are increasingly advancing options supported by the public to protect public safety, ensure accountability, contain corrections costs, and improve outcomes for youth and their communities.
Between 2012 and 2023, The Pew Charitable Trusts helped eight states—Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and West Virginia—apply data and research in support of sweeping juvenile legal system changes. These efforts included limiting detention and residential placement to those circumstances that pose the greatest public safety risk, restricting the length of any such confinement, and reinvesting the savings in community-based responses shown to reduce recidivism. And these efforts produced results. For example, in the two years after Kansas adopted a slate of reforms in 2016, the out-of-home population fell 63%, allowing the state to shift tens of millions of dollars to fund evidence-based interventions in every one of its judicial districts. Youth arrests in Kansas fell by double-digit percentages in the years after reform. Kentucky and Utah also achieved rapid reductions in placement while protecting public safety.
This string of successes shows that state governments can undertake reform measures spanning the entirety of the youth justice system—from before young people are arrested to how and when they exit the system—and contribute to decades of reductions in youth confinement as well as youth crime. The work in these eight states offers policymakers, practitioners, and advocates a roadmap to adopting comprehensive changes in their own jurisdictions that protect public safety, ensure accountability, and reduce the footprint of the juvenile legal system.