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juvenile detention

Helpful juvenile detention

David W. Roush

This article presents a comprehensive, research-based rationale for rejecting “get tough,” punitive approaches to juvenile detention and implementing “helpful programs” in detention settings instead.

Juvenile detention currently suffers an identity crisis so severe that it seems to be relinquishing its ability to help youth. Pushed and pulled by changing politics and media hyperbole, it is expected to be all things to all segments of juvenile justice (Hammergren, 1984), including mental health, special education, detoxification, shelter care, and maximum security. It is underfunded, understaffed, crowded, and ignored. It is used as long-term treatment but denied proper resources to provide it. Meanwhile, juvenile justice policy analysts seem singularly intent to identify, reveal, scrutinize, and condemn these many shortcomings of detention with little regard for their origins or constructive solutions (Frazier, 1989). And while practitioners are willing to acknowledge detention’s inadequacies, they often respond defensively nevertheless to the intensity of the criticisms levied by reformers.

Admittedly, detention practitioners have not done the best job of assembling a catalog of effective, helpful detention practices and programs that can address reformers’ concerns. However, ample information is available about why and how juvenile detention should be a first step in the treatment of young offenders, rather than simply a punitive experience. This article represents one attempt to review that knowledge in order to inform a more accurate and complete picture of what juvenile detention can and should be.

Juvenile detention defined
Born in 1905, six years after the establishment of the juvenile court, juvenile detention’s role and function have always been tied to the juvenile court. However, beyond this obvious connection, a common definition for juvenile detention has never been clearly established. So in the absence of consensus, the courts, legislatures, public officials, and law enforcement have all used detention in ways most expedient to each. The closest that the field has come to a clear definition may be the following statement, unanimously adopted in 1989 by the Board of Directors of the National Juvenile Detention Association (NJDA) (Stokes and Smith, 1990):

Juvenile detention is the temporary and safe custody of juveniles who are accused of conduct subject to the jurisdiction of the court who require a restricted environment for their own or the community’s protection while pending legal action. Further, juvenile detention provides a wide range of helpful services that support the juvenile’s physical, emotional, and social development. Helpful services minimally include: education; visitation; communication; counseling; continuous supervision; medical and health care services; nutrition; recreation; and reading. Juvenile detention includes or provides for a system of clinical observation and assessment that complements the helpful services and reports findings.

This definition was based on the seven definitional themes for juvenile detention identified by the American Correctional Association’s (ACA) Juvenile Detention Committee (Roush and Smith, 1989; Smith and Roush, 1989):

1. Temporary custody: Of all the methods of incarceration within the criminal justice system, only juvenile detention stresses its temporary nature. Detention should be as short as possible.

2. Safe custody: This concept implies both physical and psychological safety-freedom from fear and freedom from harm for both the juvenile and the community.

3. Restricted environment: The environment’s degree of restrictiveness is typically classified as maximum, medium, or minimum security. That is, there should be a range of detention alternatives (e.g., home detention, electronic monitoring, staff-secure detention) that permit an appropriate match between the juvenile’s need for supervision and public safety. Not every juvenile offender requires a locked setting for the goals of detention to be attained.

4. Community protection: The court has a legitimate right to detain juveniles for the purpose of preventing further serious and/or violent delinquent behavior.

5. Pending legal action: This theme includes the time spent awaiting a hearing, pending disposition, awaiting a placement, or pending a return to a previous placement.

6. Helpful services: Programs are available to detained juveniles that will help resolve a host of problems commonly facing them. Because detention has the potential of creating a tremendously negative impact on some juveniles, this programming is crucial.

7. Clinical observation and assessment: The controlled environment of juvenile detention facilitates intense observation and assessment in order to enhance the court’s decision-making capabilities. Competent clinical services are provided by properly credentialed individuals, on staff or under contract, who coordinate and conduct the observation and assessment process.

In both of these definitions of juvenile detention (NJDA and ACA), two distinct themes emerge: preventive detention and therapeutic detention. (See Dunlap and Roush [1995] for an expanded discussion of these functions.) It is the concept of therapeutic detention-largely the equivalent of “helpful” detention-that creates some controversy for most practitioners. However, this controversy can be lessened when the “treatment” inference is reframed. In particular, Norman (1961) stated that the treatment of youth in detention referred to (a) the quality of staff, (b) the quality of staff-youth interactions (how staff “deal with” or “treat” juveniles), and (c) the quality of care. Krisberg’s (1992) recommendations on improving the quality of care in juvenile confinement facilities by abandoning a correctional model and adopting a public health model also represent a reframing of the helpful detention issue.

Detention programming literature
The emergence of a body of literature on helpful detention programming is associated with Sherwood Norman. As a former detention practitioner and the juvenile detention consultant for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), Norman was an ardent advocate for using detention settings to deliver helpful programs, such as individual and group counseling, rather than simply punitive consequences. In 1946, he conducted a national study of juvenile detention centers that culminated in Standards and Guides to the Detention of Children and Youth (1961), a catalog of effective detention practices. Thirty-five years later, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) awarded a grant to NJDA to update Norman’s work, which resulted in the Desktop Guide to Good Juvenile Detention Practice (Roush, 1996b). Norman’s concepts were further refined by a host of contemporary juvenile detention researchers and practitioners (Brown, 1983; Carbone, 1984; Christy, 1994; Hammergren, 1984; Hughes, 1971; Jordan, 1985; Mead, 1980; Previte, 1994; Roush, 1984, 1993, 1996b; Roush & Roush, 1993; Roush & Steelman, 1982; Stepanik, 1986). Finally, the OJJDP Conditions of Confinement Study (Parent et al., 1994) is the most comprehensive analysis of juvenile confinement in the United States. This study further endorses the helpful detention philosophy.

Why helpful programming?
Despite this wealth of literature in support of using juvenile detention in a positive, not punitive, fashion, critics of helpful programs abound among legislators, policy makers, and frightened citizens. They argue that pre-adjudicatory secure detention is not for “treatment,” claiming that any secure detention program with a helpful reputation will seduce local juvenile court judges into sentencing juvenile offenders to detention programs instead of more appropriate training schools or residential placement facilities. (Thus far, these criticisms have not been supported by research, as even the most punitive detention centers seem more crowded than those with a helpful reputation.) Others justifiably criticize juvenile detention for its failure to provide basic levels of care (Frazier, 1989), but then use this as a reason to avoid or eliminate helpful programs.

However, even these efforts to adultify juvenile detention (Soler, 1997) cannot erase the need for helpful detention or the empirical evidence of its success (Howell, 1997). In addition to the fact that programs are required by the U.S. Supreme Court as a method of meeting the constitutional rights of detained juveniles (Bell, 1996), the helpful services literature cited above presents four important categories of rationale as to why helpful programs should be included in detention settings (Roush, 1993):

1. Systems rationale: Since it is unlikely that a juvenile offender will be locked up for his or her entire lifetime, the best way to fulfill one of the primary purposes of the juvenile justice system-public safety-is to reform the juvenile. Changing the juvenile offender is also a pragmatic strategy for protecting the child from himself. Educational and helpful programs can provide a youngster with the skills needed to stop those self-defeating behaviors that precipitated juvenile court intervention. The juvenile justice system was developed to help solve the problems of children and families, and helpful programs assist the juvenile justice system in achieving this part of its mission.

2. Restoration rationale: Norman (1951) believed that helpful programs in detention were needed in order that juveniles might be restored to productive roles in the community. However, he was careful to point out that restoration does not equal “rehabilitation.” Since many juvenile offenders have never been “habilitated” in the first place, helpful programming is not the process of habilitating again, but instead of restoring human worth and self-esteem.

3. First-aid rationale: Norman (1951) also introduced the “first-aid” rationale for helpful programs. He envisioned the juvenile justice system as a hospital. Within this context, various specialists and generalists worked to return patients to a healthy lifestyle. The majority of patients entered through the main entrance, referred or diagnosed for some specific intervention. But others entered through the emergency or trauma room-analogous to juvenile detention. Their problems required immediate attention. The doctors’ goals would be to stabilize and keep the patient alive, repair minor damage, and serve as the first step in a longer and more complex healing process.

Like the emergency room, juvenile detention is not meant to be an end in itself, but rather a means to an end (Brown, 1983). Stepanik (1986) expressed the first-aid rationale as follows:

Progressive detention professionals have no desire to completely habilitate or rehabilitate youth. Rather, they understand the need to begin the process as comprehensively and as soon as possible, and thus serve a more meaningful role as part of the system at large. (p. 2)

A secondary implication of the first-aid rationale is noteworthy. Secure detention has long been described as a punitive and potentially harmful experience (Frazier, 1989). Within the first 25 years of its existence, detention was characterized as possessing inherent dangers for youth (Healey and Bronner, 1926), such as the trauma caused by the loss of freedom, separation from home and family, involuntary exposure to new people and procedures, unsafe conditions of confinement, crowding, and the complete uncertainty of the experience. Although these factors apply to other correctional institutions, the impact is greatly amplified for young people in juvenile detention due to the stress and anxiety that often increase prior to their court hearings. When combined with the unfamiliar circumstances inherent in this new and unusual environment, tension and anxiety often become manifest through hostile passivity or aggression. Thus, juvenile detention is the time of greatest need for helpful programs, as they can neutralize or moderate the inherently negative and damaging effects of secure confinement.

4. Inevitability rationale: It is impossible to lock an adolescent in a secure facility and have no effect on him or her (Christy, 1994). Beyond the impact of the environment, each and every staff/resident interaction involves some level of change (Norman, 1951). Thus, behavior change within this context is a given in every juvenile detention facility. This inevitability rationale is taken one step further when applied to the ever-present institutional concepts of discipline and social climate (Roush, 1984). First, some strategy or system of discipline will be employed jointly or individually by staff to correct misbehavior. Second, detention as a total institution has a social climate. The helpful program philosophy can coordinate discipline and the social climate. Specifically, the value that a detention facility places on the dignity of juveniles is expressed most directly by the way program development shapes or affects discipline and the social climate. When discipline becomes punitive and the social climate reinforces the predominance of control, program development is stifled. In most instances, the relationship between helpful programs and punishment is inversely proportional. That is, as helpful program development expands, the emphasis on and the need for punishment decrease.

Juvenile detention as a location for helpful programs
In addition to the four rationales described above, there are several reasons why juvenile detention facilities are logical locations for innovative programs and strategies to change the behavior of juvenile delinquents:

Order. Due to the increasing use of violence by youth as a problem-solving strategy, more and more inappropriate behavior is dangerous in nature. The advantage to secure juvenile detention is that it is one of the few places within all child-serving agencies where a wide range of measures can be used to stop these behaviors and create a truly safe and orderly environment. For example, sanctions for inappropriate behavior can be applied with greater swiftness and certainty than in the public schools. In addition, criminologists, educators, and the public have understood for decades that when sanctions are swift and certain, they need not be severe.

Manageability. Furthermore, of all the institutions within the child serving profession, juvenile detention remains one of the most manageable due to its relatively small size. Most secure detention facilities have fewer than 45 beds (Parent et al., 1994). As a result, the span of control is much smaller, interactions between staff and youth have the potential to be much better, and operational efficiency is generally improved.

Momentum. Due to the restrictive nature of juvenile detention, helpful programs implemented in that setting can eliminate factors that may have been negatively affecting youth prior to incarceration, thus creating momentum in a positive direction. For example, juvenile offenders often detoxify in detention while they have no access to tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, crack-cocaine, and prescription drugs. It is not uncommon for youth to make major improvements in basic health and hygiene through the contact with medical and health care providers in juvenile detention, including a health care appraisal, health education programs, sex education programs, teen pregnancy programs, and parenting programs, to name a few. Youth often improve their general physical health and condition through regular vigorous exercise, proper nutrition, proper hygiene, and adequate sleep. And finally, it is not uncommon for parents and legal guardians of delinquent youth to re-evaluate their personal and family practices as the result of interactions with juvenile detention staff and programs.

Community-based services. Juvenile detention provides a community-based service to the juvenile court. Secure and staff-secure juvenile detention facilities, the most common institutions for juvenile offenders, are in more communities and are more likely to be under local control. Thus, opportunities are increased to link detention to all other child-serving agencies in the community (Roush, 1996a).

Juvenile detention as process. Juvenile detention, when implemented effectively, is not a building-rather it is a process that includes a range of custody alternatives. Juvenile detention as a process (Dunlap and Roush, 1995; Treahy, 1995) promotes the development of a continuum of services for troubled youth. This includes alternatives to detention (programs and services that divert youth from court involvement) and detention alternatives (a range of less restrictive options that move youth out of secure confinement without compromising the goals of detention). To develop a comprehensive, integrated strategy for the improvement of detention programs and services, especially for violent youth, community and interagency cooperation is the key.

The sinister factor of crowding
However, all five of these factors that otherwise make juvenile detention a logical place for helpful programs become irrelevant if juvenile confinement facilities are crowded. Crowding leads to substantial deterioration of the conditions of confinement and creates an unsafe environment for both residents and staff (Parent et al., 1994). The negative effects of crowding are so powerful that they can neutralize the positive effects of accreditation by the American Correctional Association (Roush, 1989). The National Juvenile Detention Association and the Youth Law Center, in partnership with OJJDP, have produced a training and technical assistance package to help juvenile justice systems resolve the various problems associated with crowding (Burrell, DeMuro, Dunlap, Sanniti, and Warboys, 1998).

Myths about detention and helpful programs
Although crowding may be the most common and seemingly intractable of the obstacles to implementing helpful programs, there are many others. In particular, three myths about helpful detention can serve as significant barriers to expanded programming. Even though they are very popular, these myths have proven to be simply untrue every time they have been challenged.

Myth 1: Helpful programs are not compatible with short-term, pre-adjudicatory, secure juvenile detention. On the contrary, there are an unbelievable number of juvenile detention facilities that engage in comprehensive daily programming, most of it helpful in nature. Two years ago, I presented a workshop on daily programming at an OJJDP national conference. After distributing a solicitation to 40 juvenile detention facilities (33 of which responded), over 70 different program descriptions were provided (Roush, 1995). Also, the Holistic Environment Life-skills Project demonstrated that even complex and comprehensive programs could be successfully integrated into a juvenile detention center (Roush, 1996c; Roush and Gaswick, 1995; Roush and Roush, 1993).

Myth 2: The short-term nature of juvenile detention prohibits continuity in ongoing programs. Helpful programs generate helpful environments. The social climate in a juvenile detention facility that uses strong, helpful programs takes on many of the same characteristics. The fear among the uninformed, however, is that the ever-present turnover associated with juvenile detention will create such a constant disruption to helpful programs that they will lose their cohesiveness, effectiveness, and stability. However, the findings of the Holistic Environmental Life-skills Project indicate that this is not the case. For example, observing a social skills curriculum with many sequential lesson plans, program evaluators were impressed by how quickly group members brought new detainees up to date with the materials being covered and the expectations of the group (Roush, 1998; Roush, Christner, Lee and Stelma, 1993). Likewise, the Bartholomew County (IN) Juvenile Detention Center uses a group-based strategy for both helpful programs and resident discipline. Residents are responsible (empowered) for the orientation of new group members (new admissions to detention). In both instances, observers, participants, and evaluators do not mention transient populations or disruptions to the group process when describing the positive effects of these helpful programs.

Myth 3: Short-term juvenile detention is so brief that real behavior change is not possible. Change can occur quickly; powerful change can occur powerfully quickly. Further evidence of this axiom can be found in the growth of brief therapy strategies and confrontive therapies (Bloom, 1992). Several years ago, the American Psychiatric Association indicated that the average number of client sessions was five. This statistic seems to indicate that a lot of change can be accomplished in an average of five hours. With well-trained staff, a captive audience, helpful programs, and a safe environment, juvenile detention can be an incredible opportunity for significant change. For example, one Alabama juvenile detention facility routinely showed a commercially prepared series of self-concept videos to detainees. Although the total involvement in watching videos was only four hours over six days, the program evaluation revealed a statistically significant increase in self-concept as a result of this extremely brief intervention (McGuffey, Broner and Smith, 1990, 1993).

Challenging the “get tough” approach
Experience indicates that these obstacles and myths facing juvenile detention are not insurmountable. Workable solutions exist to these problems, and there are many examples of exemplary juvenile detention programs throughout the country (American Correctional Association, 1996; Bilchik, 1995; Roush, 1995; Roush and Wyss, 1994). The real barrier is that even the best juvenile detention facilities often encounter bias and prejudice when they attempt to expand and strengthen helpful services to troubled youth.

Recent changes in juvenile justice, fueled by a “get tough” strategy of public officials (the revenge plus retribution equals re-election formula), has created an inaccurate and incomplete picture of juvenile detention. Furthermore, the adultification of juvenile justice has created a driving beat in minds of many. When motivated by fear and revenge, public juvenile confinement facilities will continue to look and act more like jails and prisons, despite the fact that there still is no hard evidence that treating children like adults is more effective than the historical trend of residential youth care.

Helpful juvenile detention has a legacy that is supported by the juvenile corrections profession and compatible with the larger child care profession. It is capable of innovative partnership and practices. Yet despite its promise, it receives little support outside the public sector. It is time for other members of the child-serving professions to amplify the sounds of helpful detention so that they resonate deeper than the “get tough” beat that characterizes contemporary toe-tapping.


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This feature: Roush, David W. (1999). Helpful juvenile detention. Reaching Today’s Youth, 3, 3. pp. 63-68.