Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date



Juvenile Law | Law


The nationwide trend to criminalize juvenile delinquency in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in the placement of large numbers of adolescent criminal offenders in adult correctional facilities. Prior research has assessed the consequences of this practice through comparisons of youth in juvenile corrections with youths placed in adult prisons and jails. These studies minimized the pains of imprisonment for youth who continue to be placed in juvenile correctional facilities by comparing their conditions to the more violent and toxic conditions of confinement in adult institutions. In this article, we more carefully assess the conditions of confinement within a broader range of juvenile and adult correctional settings where juvenile courts place youths. We analyze data from interviews with matched samples of 188 young men ages 16-18 incarcerated in juvenile and adult facilities across two states. Our results show that although inmates in adult facilities (surprisingly) give better reports than youth in juvenile facilities on several domains of institutional climate including criminal activity and victimization, they also fare much worse on measures of social and psychological well-being. Importantly, the inmates in adult facilities report substantially and significantly greater rates of PTSD and mental illness symptoms, and are much more likely to fear for their safety, compared to those in juvenile facilities. Overall, conditions in adult facilities are harsher than conditions in juvenile facilities, but juvenile correctional facilities pose their own hazards. We argue that incarceration should be used only as a last resort for juveniles, regardless of institutional auspice, but that when it is deemed necessary, juvenile correctional facilities represent the lesser of two evils.

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