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Report: Incarcerated Children Severely Undercounted

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Thursday, March 24, 2022   

Nearly a quarter-million children were incarcerated in the U.S. in 2019, about five times more than annual point-in-time counts, according to a new report.

Dona Playton, associate law professor at the University of Wyoming, said locking kids up actually increases the chance they will commit additional crimes. They miss time at school and fall behind, and are much more likely to end up in the school-to-prison pipeline.

"They lose connections within their community, within their peer groups," Playton explained. "It negatively impacts their families. It is so expensive, in the long run, compared to the cost of prevention."

She said programs and treatment to address family trauma and other root causes of misbehavior are much more effective at reducing recidivism. The report comes after Wyoming lawmakers recently passed House Bill 37, an effort to collect data on juveniles in the criminal justice system. Policymakers hope to get a better picture of why Wyoming has long had one of the highest child incarceration rates in the nation.

The Sentencing Project study found rates of incarceration are much higher in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, where there is a higher police presence.

Josh Rovner, senior advocacy associate for The Sentencing Project and the report's author, said it has created troubling racial disparities.

"Overall, one out of every four kids who are sent to court are detained at the outset," Rovner reported. "Now, for white youths, that is one out of every five. For Black and Latino youths, closer to 30%. And that is not connected to the seriousness of the offense."

Incarcerated children are at a higher risk of being victims of violence or sexual abuse while they are in detention, and are less likely to graduate from high school and find employment later in life.

Playton argued "scared straight" tactics, the notion that children who experience jail will get their act together, are misguided because kids are not just little adults.

"Children's brains are not fully developed, and so they don't make the best decisions," Playton emphasized. "When we treat them with punishment instead of rehabilitation or treatment, it doesn't account for the collateral consequences to them and to their family."


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