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5 Essential Reasons to Keep Kids Out of Adult Jails

Child's hands holding prison bars

Federal law protects children in the juvenile justice system from being held in adult jails.  But did you know that, on a typical day in America, over 7,500 children are locked up in adult jails?

That’s because federal protections to keep kids out of adult jails and lock-ups don’t apply to children charged as adults.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which was first passed in 1974 and most recently reauthorized in 2002, provides grants to States for juvenile crime prevention and intervention programs.  To be eligible for these funds, States must comply with four “core protections” for youth in the justice system, including jail removal and sight and sound separation to protect children from contact with adult inmates.  But because of a loophole in the law, children charged in the adult criminal system are excluded from these two protections.

Here are just 5 of the essential reasons to keep kids out of adult jails.

1.      Children who are held in adult jails are at high risk of being sexually and physically assaulted. 

In 2006, for example, 13% the victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in jails were under 18— even though only 1% of jail inmates were juveniles.

2.      Children have the highest suicide rate of all inmates in jails. 

Youth under 18 held in adult jails are much more likely to commit suicide compared to non-incarcerated youth and compared to youth held in juvenile detention facilities.  Suicides in jails are disproportionately concentrated in the first few days of incarceration, so even children who are jailed for relatively short periods of time are at high risk.

3.      Children in adult jails are denied access to education.

Most incarcerated youth have not completed high school, yet 40% of jails provide no educational services.  Nine out of 10 jails provide no special education services.

4.      Many children are punished before being tried.

According to research commissioned by the Campaign for Youth Justice, two out of three juveniles charged as adults were detained pre-trial in an adult jail, for weeks or even months in many cases.  Over a third of these defendants were charged with non-violent offenses.  Most decisions to charge a child as an adult were made by prosecutors or legislators, not by judges.

5.      Transferring children to the adult criminal system does not reduce crime.

In a systematic review of scientific evidence, the Task Force on Community Preventive Services found that transferring juveniles to the adult criminal justice system increased, not decreased, rates of violence among transferred youth.

What can be done to keep kids out of adult jails?  Congress should amend the JJDPA to extend its protections to all youth.  APA is participating in the ACT 4 Juvenile Justice (ACT4JJ) campaign to advocate for improvements in the JJDPA, which is overdue for reauthorization.  Find out more at


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