Search About Newsletters Donate
Closing Argument

How the Juvenile System Forces Minors Into Unsafe Institutions

Even in states with a drive for reform, many children and teens face long confinement and dirty, dangerous conditions.

A group of male teenagers dressed in gray sweaters and black pants are walking in two lines, with their hands behind their backs. A man in a dark blue collared shirt and tan cargo pants walks behind them.
Teenagers at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, Calif., in 2014.

This is The Marshall Project’s Closing Argument newsletter, a weekly deep dive into a key criminal justice issue. Want this delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to future newsletters here.

A 2020 reform law was supposed to remake the way the California juvenile justice system looks, feels, and even smells.

Freshly painted walls, gaming consoles, “cozy reading nooks,” and “de-escalation rooms” stocked with essential oils and weighted blankets are among the changes some county youth facilities have been pushed to install. It was all part of an effort to make the system less punitive and more therapeutic. There’s a growing initiative to offer college courses in juvenile facilities, too.

But this air of change might be news to young people held in Los Angeles County, where this week, California Attorney General Rob Bonta asked a state judge to sanction local officials for what he called “illegal and unsafe conditions.” Bonta argued that the county has regressed since a 2021 court order mandating better conditions there. He noted increased drug use by youth, and understaffing that has at times left young people without guards to escort them to the bathroom — forcing them to relieve themselves in their cells.

Conditions at Los Angeles County facilities are so poor that state regulators have repeatedly threatened to shut them down. But on Thursday, the California Board of State and Community Corrections begrudgingly gave local officials more time to improve conditions.

County officials across the state pushed back against the 2020 law — which phased out state-run juvenile facilities in favor of county-run ones — arguing that it let the state off the hook on funding and accountability for youth detention. Tasked with rolling out the changes, local officials formed a multi-county non-profit organization — not subject to public information laws — to share resources and data. Some local advocates worry that this approach is creating a “shadow jury and justice system that operates outside of the public,” reports the Sacramento Bee.

The way this has played out in California may be instructive to Texas, where some lawmakers are seeking a similar overhaul for a juvenile system long-plagued by abusive conditions and mismanagement. Proposed House Bill 4356 would phase out state-run youth detention centers by 2030, and dissolve the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which manages that system. Lawmakers are also discussing giving that same state agency $370 million in new funding over the next two years to fix chronic problems.

In place of the current system, the bill proposes a new agency that would prioritize “trauma-informed responses and culturally informed services.”

As in California, county juvenile justice officials in Texas oppose the changes, arguing that they are too overburdened to take on housing even a small number of additional youth from state facilities. Advocates for the change, however, hope that it will give the failing system a fresh start. But the juvenile justice department itself was supposed to do the same when it replaced the Texas Youth Commission in 2011, after sexual abuse was uncovered.

Adding to Texas’ problems, is that the juvenile justice system does a poor job of deciding cases and releasing young people. In Dallas, a report earlier this month found that “while national court associations recommend that 75% of children in detention centers have their case resolved within 30 days, only 1% of Dallas cases are resolved that quickly.” In one Dallas youth lockup, people wait an average of nearly five months in custody, even though more than half are ultimately released on probation.

The more time minors spend in juvenile facilities, the more likely they are to encounter traumatic experiences, like sexual assault or harassment. A recent report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found 1,762 confirmed incidents of young people being sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted in juvenile facilities between 2013 and 2018.

Last week, a 12-year-old boy was allegedly sexually assaulted by other youths at the juvenile jail in Wayne County, Michigan, where Detroit is located. County leaders had recently declared a public health state of emergency due to overcrowding and understaffing.

That’s not where the disturbing conditions end for young people in the juvenile system across the country. In Cook County, Illinois — home to Chicago — people are subjected to “dangerous and illegal forms of restraint and isolation” according to a recent report from the nonprofit disability rights group Equip for Equality. Previous reports had cataloged abusive conditions at the facility, according to Injustice Watch. Cook County officials denied the claims and said the new report was full of “gross misrepresentations.”

In the Baltimore County jail, youth are routinely locked up for 23 hours a day in cells plagued by rodents and regular floods of sewage water, according to a letter from the Maryland Office of the Public Defender to county leaders last month.

“These children have never been found guilty of anything,” Jenny Egan, a juvenile public defender, told The Baltimore Sun. “We are doing enormous damage to these children.”

Correction: A previous version of this article attributed Jenny Egan’s quote to the wrong news organization. She spoke with the Baltimore Sun. Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify the facility where Baltimore-area youth are alleged to be held under abusive conditions.

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.