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What Happens in a Juvenile Detention Center?

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in LawJuly 12, 2022

With over 250,000 young offenders tried, sentenced, or incarcerated every year in the United States, juvenile detention centers serve as a way station detainees are held within before being moved to a more permanent facility. Young offenders who occupy these detention centers are usually waiting for their trial date to come up or have just recently had their case heard and are waiting for more permanent placement.

With a severe lack of transparency from governing officials about what happens in these detention centers, it's natural to wonder what actually happens in juvenile facilities. While no two facilities are the same, most detainees follow a general schedule, with a small list of activity options for the juveniles.

 inside a juvenile detention center

Inside a Juvenile Detention Center: A Typical Day in “Juvie”

A juvenile detention center, known colloquially as "juvie", consists of units or pods containing a series of cells. These cells tend to have a few pieces of furniture, like a bunk bed or desk; besides that, there is little else, except for a sink, toilet, and whatever personal effects the detainee is allowed to have.

Several vital activities will take up a big part of a youth offenders day:

  • School: Anyone under 18 will be required to attend school, which takes place in a dedicated part of the facility. These classes will usually start in the morning, with some centers starting courses as early as 6:00 am. The curriculum in these classes is similar to a regular school, covering subjects like Math, English, Art, History, Science, and Geography. In some juvenile detention centers, there will be access to a computer lab and other basic tools, while other centers may have minimal materials to provide students.
  • Outdoors Time: Many juvenile detention centers have an outdoor area where juveniles can get fresh air, sunlight, and socialize with other detainees. This free time also includes the opportunity to use phones to call loved ones and friends.
  • Exercise:These facilities will usually have a supervised weight lifting area. Some centers also have designated areas where juveniles can run or play non-contact sports.
  • Recreational Activities: Juveniles will have a few activities to choose from, including reading, writing, watching television in a designated area, and board games like chess and checkers.
  • Religion: Most detention centers have places where juveniles can practice their religion, with some having dedicated pastors or priests that run services. Detainees have a block of time to worship and are sometimes provided with materials relating to their faith.
  • Visitation:For juvenile offenders, the only visitors that tend to be allowed in are parents or legal guardians. This tends to occur in the cafeteria area, though some facilities may have rooms set aside for the express purpose of visitation. Visitors must go through several layers of security to get in, including metal detectors and pat-downs.

Juvenile Detention Center vs Correctional Facility

The primary difference between a juvenile detention center and a juvenile correctional facility is the length of stay and presumed guilt of those confined. Detention centers are usually for the shorter term, as many of the juveniles held within are awaiting trial. It also means they have yet to be found guilty, whereas a judge has determined those in a correctional facility to be delinquent.

Youths in a detention center could also be awaiting placement in a correctional facility or are awaiting a hearing to determine whether they have violated the terms of their probation. You wouldn’t usually find juveniles with these circumstances in a correctional facility, where sentences have already been passed and determinations made.

 Effectiveness of Juvenile Detention Centers

Researchers performed numerous studies into the effectiveness of juvenile detention centers, most concluding that they tend to make the problem worse, not better. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimates that 55% of all youths are rearrested within one year of their release. Besides high recidivism levels, juvenile detention centers and correctional facilities have several negative aspects. These include:

  • Adverse Health Effects: Being placed in a detention center is a stressful event, significantly impacting the mental and physical health of the juvenile being detained. With little access to health or psychological services (beyond absolute emergencies), many of these health problems go unnoticed or uncared for during a detainee's stay.
  • Racial Targeting: People of color face incarceration at much higher rates than Caucasians, with black children five times more likely to be held in a detention center. These statistics indicate a fundamental issue with the system that requires correction before it can be considered a rehabilitation process.
  • Educational Disadvantages: Even though school continues in juvie, a juvenile's education will be significantly interrupted by a stay in a youth detention center. Less qualified teaching professionals, restricted access to computers and other educational technology, combined with the overall stressful nature of a detention center, make for a terrible learning environment.
  • Significant Financial Hardship:Many fines and fees are associated with incarceration, which can be challenging to pay for lower-income families. Bail is often one of these challenges because, without it, a youth may have to sit in jail until their trial date (even if they are innocent.) Once released, there can be further costs relating to probation and other post-incarceration monitoring programs.
  • Lasting Consequences: There is a high recidivism rate for young people who enter juvenile facilities, with 55% seeing subsequent arrests within one year of being released. This is further exacerbated by the restrictions that can come with some charges, like a felony. Felons cannot vote, own firearms, and often have difficulty finding jobs. Employers can easily search criminal records to see a young offender's arrest history, which may make finding gainful employment nearly impossible.

Juvenile Detention Centers Tend to Do More Harm Than Good

While there is a distinction between juvenile detention centers and correctional facilities, both can have a significant and negative impact on a person's future. With low rates of rehabilitation and high rates of recidivism, these facilities mainly serve to keep people of color and those in lower-income brackets in an endless cycle of incarceration.

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