We Still Have a Juvenile Incarceration Problem

September 15, 2014

Seven years ago when photographing for an architectural project I was working on at the time, I visited a juvenile detention facility in Texas. While there, I asked a staff member if he would ever be so successful at rehabilitating young people that he might be put out of job. The employee told me no, that he would continue to have work as long as the state of Texas had 10 year-olds.

There is no shortage of children behind bars in the United States. Each night, more than 60,000 of our children fall asleep in juvenile detention facilities and other residential placements, according to data collected by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. More than 3,000 of these boys and girls are there because they engaged in behaviors that are known as status offenses. Status offenses include running away from home and skipping school. They are considered illegal only because the child who engaged in them had not yet reached the age of adulthood. In 26 states and the District of Columbia, these children can be incarcerated, according to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that 88% of the children in custody are incarcerated for non-violent crimes. A little research and I found that 22 states and the District of Columbia can charge kids as young as seven as adults.

I began visiting facilities, sitting on floors and talking to kids, some who were barely old enough to be in junior high. My view was not that of a criminologist or sociologist, but rather that of an artist and human being. This enabled me to see that the boys and girls we incarcerate are those with the most fragile voices. They come from families with the least resources, and neighborhoods with the least power to address the problems they face. It was impossible for me to let them go. Even to let go at night after visiting these concrete 8x10 cells with their tiny occupants was impossible. Visually the images and the research began to weave with an investigation of legislation and how children are dealt with across the country. I spent the next five years travelling across 31 states and visiting with the children housed in nearly 200 juvenile detention facilities.

Many of the images I collected during my travels are compiled in my book, Juvenile In Justice, and website juvenile-in-justice.com. Some of this work has


been featured this week as part of an exhibit in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building. The exhibit, organized by the Act4JJ Coalition, commemorates the 40th anniversary of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). The landmark legislation was the broadest attempt by federal lawmakers to date to address juvenile justice reform in our country. Even so, more is needed. Forty years later, yet somehow I feel as if I have been documenting the nadir of the system.

You can’t simply walk into the facilities where our children are incarcerated, although I do believe you should be able to. If the public saw what we have created, they would be incensed. These are kids, children held in cold, noisy cages. Many are not allowed anything on the walls. Their rooms are barren except for a small cot to sleep in and a cold metal sink and toilet. Spend a few days with a cot in your bathroom and your head six feet from the toilet. Understand how these kids live.

The stated goal of our juvenile justice system is rehabilitation. We say we create these institutions to aide in that goal, however evidence shows that community-based resources are better suited to meet childrens’ needs and address the underlying causes of their behaviors. But here we languish today with more of our children in lock down than any other civilized nation on the planet.

We have criminalized the act of being a kid and getting into trouble. Rather than turn them around, we have tried to crush them. The mass incarceration that has evolved has taken its toll on the youngest of our world, on our communities, and our society as a whole.

40 years later, we simply need to follow the adage of treating every kid as if they were our own. My kids. Help them.

The time is now to reauthorize the JJDPA. In the decades since this law was first passed, we have learned a great deal about how we can keep our children and our communities safe. The law should be changed to reflect this information. I urge Congress to take action for all of our kids.   

Ross is the creator of “Juvenile In Justice”- a project to document the placement and treatment of American kids in the justice system.

This article originally appeared on the September 13, 2014 edition of The Hill with the title, "We Still Have A Juvenile Incarceration Problem." It is reprinted here with permission.

This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction. jjdpa matters icon

The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, turns 40 this September. Each month leading up to this anniversary, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA.  To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.

Richard Ross