Unlocking Potential

March 2014

Every year, hundreds of Massachusetts children who have never been found guilty of a crime are locked in in jail-like facilities while they await trial.  Others are locked up because they have violated a condition of probation by doing something like failing to attend school or arguing with their parent.  The majority of these kids have only low-level charges and pose little risk to themselves or others.  However, the Commonwealth spends millions of dollars to detain them, leading to worse outcomes for both kids and communities.

Detention is traumatic – disrupting normal adolescent development and interfering with education. It also significantly reduces kids’ chances of growing up into successful, law-abiding adults. Unlocking Potential: Addressing the overuse of juvenile detention in Massachusetts highlights why detention is harmful to kids, whom we detain, and which alternatives to detention are working well in Massachusetts. It also calls attention to work that still needs to be done, including the need to expand models already being developed at the local level to reduce juvenile incarceration around the Commonwealth.

Key findings include:

  • Detention is traumatic, disconnecting youth from their families and other positive supports and interfering with their education
  • Detention makes kids more likely to drop out of school and reoffend, and decreases their chances of being employed as adults
  • While declining juvenile crime rates have led to fewer detentions overall, the proportion of arraigned kids who are detained has held constant despite ongoing reform efforts
  • More than 50% of youth in detention have only misdemeanor charges, a percentage that has increased over time
  • Approximately 2/3 of the detention population are youth of color, with racial disparities in detention increasing over time
  • About 40% of youth in detention have open child welfare cases and 50% have educational disabilities, suggesting avenues for further reform

A number of system stakeholders are engaged in innovative work to reduce unnecessary incarceration, including:

  • Pre-arraignment diversion programs to prevent kids from entering the justice system
  • Community-based alternatives to detention that provide services to kids while they remain at home
  • Alternatives to secure detention, including foster care
  • Programs focused on specific populations, such as youth with open child welfare cases

While these efforts are helping to reduce the number of kids who experience the detrimental impacts of detention, more work needs to be done.  Citizens for Juvenile Justice recommends that Massachusetts:

  • Increase pre-arraignment diversion options and make them available in all counties, including restorative justice and other community-based programs
  • Make detention and out-of-home placement a last resort for all youth
  • Continue to expand community-based alternatives for youth at all stages of the process
  • Implement specific, targeted reforms to address overrepresentation of certain populations of youth, particularly youth of color and youth in the child welfare system
  • Significantly expand and improve the collection and use of data about youth who are in or at risk for involvement in the juvenile justice system in order to ensure that what we are doing is evidence-based, fair, and effective


For a PDF copy of the report, please click HERE

For a copy of the press release, please click HERE


A companion report by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, Unlocking Potential: Examining the Funding of Juvenile Detention and Effective Alternatives in Massachusetts, explores budget trends for juvenile detention over time. It looks at newer alternative programs for kids entering the juvenile justice system, and compares costs across the detention continuum. The report finds that placement in a secure facility is not only the most harmful option for kids, it is the most expensive. A community placement in foster care is the least expensive detention option costing less than half a placement in secure facilities. Alternatives to detention are even less expensive than foster care and keep non-violent kids out of secure facilities. The report further finds that the number of alternative placements is increasing, but that implementation has been slow and uneven. This report is available at massbudget.org/kids.php


These reports were released on March 25, 2014 by Citizens for Juvenile Justice and the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center at a forum hosted by Bingham McCutchen LLP. CfJJ's presentation on its report is available here.

This research was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. We thank them for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of Citizens for Juvenile Justice alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.