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Alternatives to Detention and Confinement

Literature Review: A product of the Model Programs Guide
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When a youth who commits an offense comes to the attention of the juvenile justice system (that is, law enforcement, the courts, or other decisionmakers), there are several ways decisionmakers can respond. In juvenile court, responses can include legal or mandated options, such as secure detention, secure confinement, transfer to the adult system, probation supervision, community-based programs, or nonsecure residential programs (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023). The court also has the option to provide the youth with interventions that are not formally mandated (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023). 

Generally, the purposes of secure detention are to ensure that a youth appears for all court hearings and to protect the community from future offending while the youth awaits court decisions and dispositional placement (Clark, 2014; Puzzanchera et al., 2022a). Most of the youths in secure detention are in detained status, which means they are being held while awaiting adjudication, disposition, transfer to adult court, or other court decisions (Puzzanchera et al., 2022b).

In contrast, a youth who is in the confined or committed population has been placed in a residential facility as part of a court-ordered disposition. Many of these youths are securely confined in long-term secure facilities or other types of residential programs. They have been adjudicated for a delinquency offense in court and, as part of their disposition, they have been sent to a secure residential program (Austin, Johnson, and Weitzer, 2005; Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023a). These residential programs are usually designed to address the factors related to offending and to prevent recidivism (Clark, 2014; Griffis et al., 2014).

Researchers have identified several negative outcomes for youths held in secure detention or confinement (e.g., Apel and Sweeten, 2010; Caudill et al., 2013; Gilman and Hawkins, 2015; Gilman et al., 2021; Ryan, Abrams, and Huang, 2014; Walker and Herting, 2020). Thus, alternatives have been developed (Austin, Johnson, and Weitzer, 2005; Chamberlain, Leve, and DeGarmo, 2007). Community-based alternatives to secure detention and secure confinement are used to prevent youths from being placed outside of their homes. Residential alternatives include group homes, shelters, and residential treatment centers. These options often offer a residential placement without the secure environment or with enhanced treatment offerings. What is considered an alternative varies by jurisdiction. 

The purpose of this literature review is to examine interventions that have been developed or used to replace secure detention or confinement. For more information on other types of diversion programs, please see the Diversion From Formal Juvenile Court Processing literature review.  

This section provides information about juvenile justice processing in the United States, including definitions of some key terms used when describing the different stages of the juvenile justice system, and data trends showing the volume of activity at the different stages of the system. Although jurisdictions vary in their juvenile justice system structure and process, the following terms provide a generic model of court processing, which serves as a common framework to combine and compare data from different jurisdictions (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023). The terms below are provided as background information to better understand this literature review.

The juvenile court has jurisdiction over delinquent acts and status offenses

  • Delinquency offenses are acts committed by a juvenile that, if committed by an adult, would be criminal acts and could result in criminal prosecution. Delinquent acts include crimes against persons, crimes against property, drug offenses, and crimes against public order (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:95; Statistical Briefing Book, 2023a.
  • Status offenses are acts that are illegal only because the persons committing them are of juvenile status. The five major status offense categories are 1) running away, 2) truancy, 3) curfew law violations, 4) ungovernability, and 5) underage liquor law violations (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:98; Statistical Briefing Book, 2023a).

When youths are referred to juvenile court, an intake department screens the cases. In 2020, courts with juvenile jurisdiction handled an estimated 508,400 delinquency cases. During the past 10 years, the number of delinquency cases has declined by 58 percent (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:7).

The intake department may decide to dismiss a case for lack of legal sufficiency or to resolve the matter formally or informally.

  • Informal (i.e., nonpetitioned) dispositions may include a voluntary referral to a social service agency, informal probation, or the payment of fines or some form of voluntary restitution. In 2020, 46 percent of the 508,400 delinquency cases in juvenile court were handled informally (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:52).
  • Formally handled cases are petitioned and scheduled in court for an adjudicatory or waiver hearing. In 2020, 54 percent of the 508,400 delinquency cases in juvenile court were petitioned, resulting in 276,300 cases (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:52). Also in 2020, there were 57,700 petitioned status offense cases (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:64).

Some youths also are processed in the adult criminal justice system, rather than in juvenile court. Most states have more than one mechanism for transferring cases to criminal court, including direct filing by prosecutors, exclusion from juvenile court by state statute, or transfer by a juvenile court judge.

Adjudication is the juvenile court process that determines whether a youth is responsible for the delinquency or status offense that is charged in a petition or other charging document. Generally, this is decided by a juvenile-court judge. The term adjudicated refers to the judicial determination that the youth was responsible for the offense, and the term not adjudicated refers to the judicial determination that the youth was not responsible for the offense. The term adjudicated in juvenile court is analogous to the term convicted in adult court, indicating that the court concluded the juvenile is responsible for the act or offense (e.g., Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023; Statistical Briefing Book, 2023a). In 2020, 49 percent of petitioned delinquency cases and 30 percent of petitioned status offenses resulted in adjudication in juvenile court (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:52,84).

After adjudication, at the disposition hearing, the juvenile court judge determines the most appropriate sanction. The range of dispositional options available to a court typically includes commitment to a long-term secure facility; alternative out-of-home placement in a group home, shelter, foster home, residential treatment center, or other residential facility; community-based options such as probation, referral to an outside agency, day treatment, or a mental health program; or imposition of a fine, community service, or restitution. Disposition orders often involve multiple sanctions and/or conditions (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023; Statistical Briefing Book, 2023a).

Out-of-home-placement (or just placement) indicates cases in which youths were placed in a residential facility after being charged with or adjudicated for a delinquency or status offense, or cases in which youths otherwise were removed from their homes and placed elsewhere (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023). There are many residential options for youths involved in juvenile court, ranging from small, community-based group homes to large, long-term secure facilities. In 2020, of the estimated 134,200 delinquency cases that were adjudicated, 27 percent (35,900 cases) were placed outside the home in a residential facility (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:52).

One way to categorize residential placement options is by their level of security. According to the Prison Rape Elimination (PREA) standards, secure juvenile facility means a juvenile facility where the movements and activities of individual residents may be restricted or subject to control through the use of physical barriers or intensive staff supervision (PREA Standards § 115.5). A facility that allows residents access to the community to achieve treatment or correctional objectives, such as through educational or employment programs, typically will not be considered to be a secure juvenile facility (National PREA Resource Center, 2023).

During the juvenile justice decisionmaking process, a youth also can be securely detained to protect the community, to ensure the youth’s appearance at subsequent court hearings, to secure the youth’s own safety, or for the purpose of evaluating the youth. Youths can be detained securely by police before referral, between court referral and case disposition, and by the courts after disposition while awaiting placement elsewhere (Gilman et al., 2021; Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:29; Statistical Briefing Book, 2023a).

The term secure detention is generally used consistently in research, practice, and advocacy. However, the term secure confinement is defined differently depending on the sources.

The Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement (CJRP) is a biennial survey (funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention [OJJDP]) of public and private juvenile residential facilities in the United States that provides 1-day population counts. The Juvenile Residential Facility Census (JRFC, also funded by OJJDP) collects information about the facilities where youths are held who were charged or court-adjudicated for an offense in juvenile court. It also is conducted biennially. The CJRP indicates that a facility is locked when youths are restricted within the facility or its grounds by locked doors, gates, or fences some or all of the time (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023a; Puzzanchera et al., 2022a). Facilities that do not rely on locks for security are known as staff secure. However, locked facilities are not always the same thing as secure facilities.

The CJRP and JRFC provide several definitions in their glossaries (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023a; Puzzanchera et al., 2022a), including definitions of the types of residential facilities where youths are housed as a result of an offense. 

  • Detention centers are designed as short-term facilities that provide temporary care in a physically restricting environment for youth in custody pending court adjudication, disposition, placement, transfer to another jurisdiction or adult court, and other court decisions (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023a; Puzzanchera et al., 2022a). In other words, the primary purpose of detention centers is to hold youths safely to ensure their appearance in court and while they await court processing and placements. Additionally, in some U.S. states, detention centers also are used as dispositional placements (Hockenberry, 2022; Statistical Briefing Book, 2023b; Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, 2022). In 2021, 80 percent of youths in detention centers were in detained status, 16.5 percent were committed, 1 percent were diverted, and 3 percent were other/unknown (see below for definitions of detained and committed) [Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b]. There have been large decreases in the use of juvenile detention centers during the past 20 years, from a peak of 38,741 youths in 2001 to 11,585 in 2021. In 2021, 99.6 percent of youths in a detention center were in a locked facility. Also, 85 percent of the youths were male, 48 percent Black, 28 percent white, 19 percent Hispanic, 2 percent American Indian, and 3 percent another race/ethnicity (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b).
  • Long-term secure facilities are specialized types of facilities that provide strict confinement for their residents; they include training schools, reformatories, and juvenile correctional facilities (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023a). In 2021, 83 percent of the youths in long-term secure facilities were in committed status, 16 percent were in detained status, and less than 1 percent were another/unknown status. There have been large, steady decreases in the use of long-term secure facilities during the past 24 years, from 40,317 youths in 1997 to 6,323 in 2021, representing a decrease of 84 percent. In 2021, 99.9 percent of youths in a long-term secure facility were in a locked facility. Also, 90 percent of the youths were male, 37 percent were Black, 29 percent white, 28 percent Hispanic, 3 percent American Indian, and 3 percent another race/ethnicity (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b).

In this literature review, secure detention and secure confinement generally are used interchangeably with the CJRP’s definition of detention centers and long-term secure facilities. The other residential facility classifications are considered alternatives to secure detention and confinement in this literature review. These options are defined briefly below and in more detail in the Residential Alternatives to Secure Detention and Confinement section. However, it is noteworthy that some of these alternatives—especially residential treatment centers—can still be secure.

  • Residential treatment centers are facilities that concentrate on providing some type of individually planned treatment program for youth (substance misuse, sex offending, mental health problems, etc.) in conjunction with residential care. Such facilities generally require specific licensing by the state that may require that treatment provided is reimbursable by Medicaid. 
  • Shelters are short-term facilities that provide temporary care similar to that of detention centers, but in a physically unrestricting environment. These include runaway/homeless shelters and other types of shelters. 
  • Reception/diagnostic centers are short-term facilities that screen persons committed by the courts and assign them to appropriate correctional facilities.
  • Group homes are long-term facilities where residents are allowed extensive contact with the community, such as to attend school or hold a job. These include halfway houses. 
  • Boot camps operate like military basic training. They emphasize physical activity, drills, and manual labor. Strict rules and drill instructor tactics are designed to break down youths’ resistance. Length of stay is generally longer than detention but shorter than most long-term commitments.
  • Ranches and wilderness camps are long-term residential facilities for persons whose behavior does not necessitate the strict confinement of a long-term secure facility, often allowing them greater contact with the community. These include ranches, forestry camps, wilderness or marine programs, or farms. [Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023a]

The CJRP categorizes the placement status for youths held for an offense according to four primary residential statuses: 1) committed, 2) detained, 3) diverted, and 4) other. In 2021, 53 percent of the 24,894 youths counted in the CJRP were in committed status, 44 percent were in detained status, 3 percent were in diverted status, an unknown status, or another type of status (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b).

  • Some youths are detained while awaiting an adjudication hearing, dispositional hearing, placement, or other court decisions, usually to protect the community from future offending or to ensure appearances in court (Austin, Johnson, and Weitzer, 2005; Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023a). There was a substantial decrease in the use of juvenile detention during the 15-year period ending in 2020. Between 2005 and 2020, the number of delinquency cases involving detention decreased 68 percent (from 402,000 to 127,700) [Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:32] and the number of petitioned status offense cases involving detention decreased 88 percent (from 20,100 to 2,500) [Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:77]. A 1-day count of youths in residential facilities in 2021 found that the detained population had decreased from 28,040 in 1997 to 10,986 in 2021 (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b), a reduction of 61 percent. The 2021 CJRP found that 55 percent of detained youths were awaiting juvenile court adjudication, 17 percent were adjudicated and awaiting placement, 16 percent were adjudicated and awaiting disposition, and 12 percent were awaiting a criminal court or transfer hearing (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b). When the 2021 CJRP was taken, 84 percent of youths in the detained population were residing in a detention center, 9 percent were in a long-term secure residential facility, 3 percent were in a residential treatment center, 1 percent were in a group home, 1 percent were in a shelter, and fewer than 1 percent were in a bootcamp or ranch/wilderness camp.
  • The committed youth population includes those who were placed as part of a court-ordered disposition (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023a). In 2020, 27 percent of cases that were adjudicated delinquent in juvenile court resulted in out-of-home placement (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:52). In 2021, there were 13,229 committed youths in residential facilities, which included secure confinement and other residential options (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b). This number has declined every year since 1999, and in 2021 it was the lowest number since data collection began in 1997. Of these committed youths in a residential placement in 2021, 40 percent were in a long-term secure facility, 33 percent were in a residential treatment center, 14.5 percent were in a detention center, 9 percent were in a group home, 2 percent were in a ranch/wilderness camp, 1 percent were in a shelter, and fewer than 1 percent were in a boot camp or reception/diagnostic center (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b).

Finally, some researchers study juvenile incarceration (e.g., Aizer and Doyle, 2013; Bayer, Hjalmarsson, and Pozen, 2009; Dmitrieva et al., 2012; Gilman et al., 2021; Lambie and Randell, 2013) or juvenile justice institutions (e.g., Mallett and Boitel, 2015; Simons et al., 2017). However, like the challenges in defining secure confinement, definitions of incarceration and juvenile institutions vary across studies, and even within a single study (Gilman et al., 2021). Incarceration can indicate anything from a few hours in a temporary detention center to several years in a long-term rehabilitation facility (Aizer and Doyle, 2013; Bayer, Hjalmarsson, and Pozen, 2009; Dmitrieva et al., 2012; Gilman et al., 2021). This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about how different types of incarceration experiences might affect youth (Gilman et al., 2021).

In this literature review, secure confinement is referred to as a locked residential facility used as a disposition (to distinguish it from secure detention) that is not a residential treatment center, shelter, boot camp, wilderness camp, or group home. In the CJRP, these generally are called long-term secure facilities (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023a). However, studies may use different terminology, which is defined whenever possible throughout this literature review.

Research suggests that secure detention and confinement can negatively affect youth outcomes (e.g., Apel and Sweeten, 2010; Black, 2016; Gilman et al., 2021; Orendain et al., 2022; Ryan, Abrams, and Huang, 2014; Schaefer and Erickson, 2019; Viljoen et al., 2023; Walker and Herting, 2020). Some researchers call these unintended consequences “iatrogenic effects” (Cullen and Johnson, 2014; Gatti, Tremblay, and Vitaro, 2009; Gillman, Hill, and Hawkins, 2015).

Consequences of Secure Detention

Detention centers are designed as short-term facilities that provide temporary care in a physically restricting environment for youths awaiting appearances in court, court processing, or placements. However, spending time in secure detention can negatively affect a youth’s mental and physical well-being, psychosocial development, education, and future employment, while interrupting positive family, peer, and school relationships and promoting a negative peer culture (Abram et al., 2017; Austin, Johnson, and Weitzer, 2005; Dishion and Dodge, 2005; Holman and Ziedenberg, 2007; Koyama, 2012; Lyons and Danielson, 2023). Spending time in secure detention also can influence recidivism and additional contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems (Mendel, 2011; Ogle and Turanovic, 2019; Walker and Herting, 2020).

Many studies have shown that once youths are detained—even when controlling for their current offenses, offending histories, and other variables—they are more likely than nondetained youths to end up going deeper into the juvenile justice system (Leiber, Brubaker, and Fox, 2009; Leiber and Fox, 2005; Rodriguez, 2010; Schwalbe, Hatcher, and Maschi, 2009). For example, a study of youths referred to court for their first offense in a large southern state found that length of stay in detention increased the odds of a formal disposition by a margin of between 9 percent and 20 percent for each additional day of detention (Caudill et al., 2013). Youths in the sample were referred to court for the first time when they were from age 10 to 12. The study authors controlled for gender, race, age, gang membership, household status, history of abuse, juvenile court history, and current offense characteristics. 

Pretrial detention placement also can affect legal outcomes outside of the juvenile court. One study (Steiner, 2009) found that pretrial detention increased the likelihood that a youth convicted in adult court (after transfer) would be sentenced to prison, even after controlling for legal factors such as offense type, offense severity, and relationship with court (i.e., whether the youth was currently on probation or parole, or had been released on bail in another case); extralegal factors such as sex and race; and other factors such as whether the juvenile had a public defender and whether there was a bench or jury trial.

Finally, researchers have found that spending time in secure detention increases the likelihood of recidivism. A large study of 46,000 juvenile cases across 32 jurisdictions found that pretrial detention was associated with a 33 percent increase in felony recidivism and an 11 percent increase in misdemeanor recidivism within 1 year (Walker and Herting, 2020). Another study, which used a sample of low-risk youths from Florida who committed a misdemeanor offense and failed to appear in court, compared differences in recidivism between those who were detained for failing to appear and those who were placed on probation (Ogle and Turanovic, 2019). The study authors found that detaining youths for failure to appear in court increased official recidivism, technical recidivism, and re-detainment within 2 years.

The consequences tend to have a more detrimental effect on low-risk youths, since they experience the consequences without the community-safety benefits. 

Consequences of Secure Confinement

Although the aims of secure confinement usually are to treat youth and reduce recidivism (in a secure setting), studies have found significant adverse effects. One systematic review concluded that, “With few exceptions the extant research on incarceration points to negative effects on youth and young adult outcomes” (Gilman et al., 2021). Another study concluded that juvenile incarceration is “more damaging than rehabilitative” (Lambie and Randell, 2013). 

For example, a study that examined individuals who had experienced at least one police contact in adolescence compared those who were incarcerated (defined as serving time in a juvenile detention center or a state juvenile corrections institution after adjudication and disposition) with those who were never incarcerated. This study, which occurred in Seattle, WA, found that those who were incarcerated as youths were more likely to experience several negative outcomes as adults, including incarceration in the adult criminal justice system, alcohol misuse or dependence, and dependence on public assistance, compared with youths who were not incarcerated (Gilman, Hill, and Hawkins, 2015).

Several other studies also examine recidivism as an outcome. For example, a study of more than 8,000 youths ages 17 or younger when released from a Florida-based juvenile correctional facility found strong evidence of the existence of negative peer effects, which influenced recidivism (Bayer, Hjalmarsson, and Pozen, 2009). The authors found that, in almost all instances, exposure to peers with a history of committing a particular crime increased the probability that an individual who has already committed the same type of crime recidivates with that crime. 

Researchers also are concerned with nonlegal outcomes. For example, a study of more than 1,000 male adolescents adjudicated with serious charges compared psychosocial maturity indicators of youths confined in a secure facility with those not placed in a facility (Dmitrieva et al., 2012). A secure facility was defined as a setting that was considered incarceration without rehabilitation. These included juvenile detention, adult jails, and adult prisons. Youths were recruited into the study when they were 14 to 17 years old and were followed by the researchers for 7 years. The study authors found that incarceration in a secure setting was associated with a short-term decline in temperance and responsibility. They also found that confinement in secure settings that had more negative features (such as perceived facility danger and high levels of peer delinquency) was associated with lower subsequent levels of global psychosocial maturity, temperance, and responsibility, compared with no incarceration. Positive facility features (such as mental health services, training services, reentry planning, and the presence of a caring adult) were unrelated to any of the measures of psychosocial maturity. The study found no support for the notion that incarceration in harsh settings promotes the development of self-control or responsibility. 

A researcher who analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found significant harms to mental health following confinement in late adolescence (ages 16–17) and in emerging adulthood (18–24) [Powell, 2022:168]. Mental health was measured by asking respondents how often in the past month they had felt calm and peaceful, felt downhearted and blue, been a happy person, been a nervous person, and felt so down in the dumps that nothing could cheer them up. Other researchers, who examined the same dataset, found that young people who were incarcerated upon their first conviction were less likely later to be employed than young people who were convicted but not incarcerated (Apel and Sweeten, 2010).

Experiencing secure confinement can also increase educational barriers for youths (Cavendish, 2014; Farn and Adams, 2016; Osgood, Foster, and Courtney, 2010). For example, a study that analyzed 10 years of juvenile court data in Chicago, IL, found that, after controlling for demographic characteristics and crime severity, juvenile incarceration (as a juvenile court disposition) reduced high school graduation rates by 13 percent and increased adult incarceration rates by 22 percent (Aizer and Doyle, 2013).

Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Data have shown that youths of color are more likely than white youths to be securely detained and confined. For example, for most years between 2005 and 2020, juvenile courts in the United States have been less likely to order detention for cases involving white youths than for cases involving other racial/ethnic groups (Black, Asian, American Indian, Hispanic) [Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:34]. Also, a 1-day count of youths in long-term secure facilities in 2021 found that Black and American Indian youths are overrepresented in the population, while white and Asian youths are underrepresented (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b). The existence of racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system raises questions of bias, fairness, and legitimacy regarding its functioning, and also raises questions about the larger life-course trajectories of the youths in minority communities who may become marked by criminal records early in life (National Research Council, 2013:211). For more information, see the MPG literature review on Racial and Ethnic Disparity in Juvenile Justice Processing.

There are several residential alternatives to secure detention or confinement. However, definitions of these alternatives vary among studies, making comparisons difficult. Reports from the General Accounting Office (GAO, 2007; GAO, 2008) noted the wide diversity of programs and facilities that appear under different names. Further, “no federal laws define what constitutes a residential program, nor are there any standard, commonly recognized definitions for specific types of programs” (GAO, 2008:5). In 2007 the GAO suggested that the lack of standard definitions has contributed to inconsistencies and challenges in the oversight of these programs, as individual programs can select their own classification. States often regulate programs that receive public funding, but they may not license or regulate privately run programs, and federal oversight does not extend to private facilities that receive no federal funds (GAO, 2007).

The number of justice system–involved youths sent to all types of residential programs has declined steadily and substantially since the late 1990s and early 2000s (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b). This includes the number of youths sent to secure detention and confinement (see Definitions and Scope of the Issue) and to alternative residential placements. In 1999, there were more than 107,000 youths in residential placement because of an offense. By 2019 there were only 36,479 youths in residential placement. And in 2021 there were only 24,894 youths in residential placement, a reduction of 77 percent from the total in 1999.

This section describes residential treatment centers, shelter care, group homes, ranch/wilderness camps, boot camps, and foster care, all of which could be used as alternatives to secure detention and confinement. However, except for foster care, each of these alternatives includes programs that restrict youths’ movements within the facility or its grounds by locked doors, gates, or fences some or all of the time (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b). 

Residential Treatment Centers

Residential treatment centers are designed to provide individually planned treatment programs for youths, in conjunction with residential care. Treatment programs can address issues such as substance misuse, sex offending, and mental health problems. Such facilities generally require specific licensing by the state that may mandate that treatment provided is reimbursable by Medicaid (Dmitrieva et al., 2012; Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023a). However, some studies have concluded that once youths are placed in a residential treatment center (RTC), the type or efficacy of treatment youths receive is largely unknown (Javdani, Berezin, and April, 2023; Justice Policy Institute, 2009).

The number of youths held in RTCs has declined substantially from its high of 20,355 in 2006 to 4,802 in 2021, a decrease of 76 percent. However, the percentage of committed youths in RTCs increased slightly during this time (from about 30 percent in 2006–10 to about 33 percent or 34 percent in 2015–21). In 2021, 90 percent of the youths in RTCs were in committed status, 7 percent were detained, and fewer than 4 percent were being diverted or of unknown status; 84 percent were males; 44 percent were white; 37 percent Black, 13 percent Hispanic, 1.5 percent American Indian, and 4 percent other. Also, 88 percent of youths in RTCs (of any status) were in facilities considered to be locked (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b).

Some research has examined the effects of RTCs, in comparison with traditional juvenile institutions (e.g., Caldwell et al., 2006; Dmitrieva et al., 2012; Gordon, Moriarty, and Grant, 2000). However, like many of the terms used to compare residential placements for justice-involved youths, the term traditional juvenile institutions is not defined consistently across different studies. 

For example, a study of 141 boys with juvenile offenses and high psychopathy scores compared the boys who were placed in an RTC with the boys placed in a conventional juvenile correctional institution (JCI) [Caldwell et al., 2006]. The RTC had greater treatment resources than the JCI, and the bed units were smaller. The RTC frontline staff–resident ratios were more than double that of the JCIs, and they had one psychiatrist on staff for every 28 youths, one psychologist for every 26 youths, one social worker for every 14 youths, and a psychiatric nurse assigned to the day shift. In contrast, mental health professionals were not normally assigned to specific JCI units, and psychiatric services typically were medication assessments and follow-up provided in a clinic format by a part-time contracted psychiatrist with a potential caseload of 300 to 500 youths. The ratio of residents to full-time psychologist positions was approximately 75 to 1 in the JCI. The ratio of residents to frontline staff typically was 20 to 1, and units were supervised by experienced security staff. The researchers found that the boys in the JCI group were more than twice as likely to violently recidivate in the community after 2 years, compared with the boys who were placed in the RTC. Placement in the RTC also was associated with relatively slower and lower rates of serious recidivism. 

The study by Dmitrieva and colleagues (2012), discussed in the Consequences of Secure Detention and Confinement section, compared differences in psychosocial maturity outcomes of more than 1,000 male adolescents adjudicated with serious charges in three different situations: 1) confinement in a secure facility, 2) confinement in a residential treatment facility, and 3) not in a facility (Dmitrieva et al., 2012). A residential treatment facility was defined as a setting with a greater emphasis than the other secure facilities on rehabilitation and providing services. Residential treatment facilities typically provided a range of services that were centered on a specific model of intervention (e.g., peer culture, physical challenge) or focused more specifically on mental health treatment and targeting mentally ill adolescents. All residential treatment facilities provided a residential program within a structured environment, but they varied with respect to their security and access to the community. The study authors found that placement in a residential treatment facility was not associated with a short-term decline in temperance and responsibility (as placement in secure confinement was). However, they also found that youths who spent a greater proportion of time in a residential treatment facility showed slower net growth in psychosocial maturity, perspective, and responsibility (i.e., a negative effect on the developmental trajectory of psychosocial maturity), relative to no incarceration. This finding was contrary to their expectations. 

Finally, an article about youth in the juvenile justice system suggested that when detention or incarceration facilities must be used, they should follow much of what is known to work within RTCs (Mallett and Boitel, 2015). The researchers recommended that facilities be designed as short-term placements that offer effective interventions and treatment, involve family members in the process, and plan for reentry and aftercare needs throughout the placement. 

Shelter Care

A shelter is a short-term facility that provides temporary care like a detention center, but in a physically unrestricting environment (Puzzanchera et al., 2022a). Shelter care is an option for youths who require more supervision than nonresidential options, and for youths who need placement because no parent or family member can provide a residence. Shelters can be used both pre- and post-adjudication (that is, as an alternative to detention and confinement) [Mogulescu and Caro, 2008; Leon et al., 2016]. Also, youths may be placed in shelter care when they are in a crisis situation, in a state of transition, or need to be removed from the home for a short period (Boel–Studt, Huang, and Collins, 2023; Slesnick et al., 2016).  

Shelter homes vary widely in terms of the services they provide and the residents they serve. Some shelter homes can hold a youth for 1 year or longer, while emergency shelters limit stays to 30 days or fewer (Koehn et al., 2001). Depending on the shelter, a youth can receive a service plan and assessment, medical screenings, individual and group counseling, family therapy, in-house education, and access to food and recreational programming (Hicks–Coolick, Burnside–Eaton, and Peters, 2003;  Hockenberry and Sladky, 2020). Youths may have a daily schedule of structured educational and recreational activities. Some youths receive aftercare follow-up or job training/placement services.

Overall, research on shelter care is limited (Boel–Studt, Huang, and Collins, 2023), and much of it concentrates on youths in crisis (such as homeless or runaway youths) or youths in the child welfare system (e.g., Hindt et al., 2019; Slesnick et al., 2016; Thompson et al., 2002). There is not much recent research regarding shelter care and justice-involved youths.

In 2020 the JRFC found that there were 82 shelters for youths who are held for an offense, down from 250 in 2000 (Puzzanchera et al., 2022b). The number of shelters in the United States decreased steadily during those two decades. Similarly, the number of youths being held in shelters for an offense decreased from 1,375 in 2003 to 359 in 2021, which is a decrease of 74 percent (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b). In 2021, 40 percent of the youths in shelters were part of the detained population, 53 percent were in the committed population, 5 percent were in the shelter as part of a diversion effort, and 1 percent were unknown status (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b). Also in 2021, 28 percent of the youths were female, which was higher than the percentage of female residents in other placement types, such as residential treatment centers (16.5 percent female), detention centers (15 percent female), group homes (15 percent female), long-term secure facilities (10 percent female), and boot camps (2 percent female).

An exploratory study that assessed data from focus groups with girls in Indiana detention centers, shelter care, and correctional facilities found several differences among the girls by residential type (Garcia and Lane, 2013). Compared with girls who were in detention or a correctional facility, the girls in the shelter were less likely to come from intact families and more likely to identify familial instigation (e.g., their parents or other family members introduced them to drugs, alcohol, or other crime) as one of the things that “got them into trouble.” Most of the girls in the shelter explained that they were there because of problems their parents created or because their parents were unable to care for them.

Group Homes

Group homes are community-based, long-term alternative placements used by youth-related agencies, including juvenile justice, child welfare, and mental health. In group homes, youths involved in the juvenile justice system are allowed extensive contact with the community; these living quarters sometimes serve as alternatives to detention or confinement. Youths in group homes can attend school in the community, hold a job in the community, or do both. Each group home tends to serve anywhere from 5 to 15 youths, who are placed in the home through a court order or through public welfare agencies (Curtis, Alexander, and Lunghofer, 2001; Handwerk et al., 1998; Ryan et al., 2008; Thompson et al., 1996). 

Anderson and colleagues (2019) described gender-specific services in two group homes for justice system-involved girls. The first group home housed girls who were classified as moderate risk; the second group home housed girls who were classified as high risk. On average, girls stayed in the group home for 5 to 6 months. Both gender-specific group homes used treatment models based on criminogenic needs, family demands, substance misuse, and individuals’ needs. Cognitive–behavioral treatment was implemented in group, individual, and family settings. The group homes sought to modify behavior patterns by addressing antisocial cognitions, increasing prosocial leisure activities, building positive relationships with peers and family members, enhancing school performance, avoiding negative social situations, and teaching skills (e.g., problem solving, anger management, communication, self-efficacy, and means of coping) and noncriminal and alternative behaviors.  Specific programs included the  Thinking for a Change (T4C) cognitive–behavioral curriculum, Girls Moving On (GMO) gender-responsive programming, and an aftercare service group. Other program amenities included classes and activities such as scrapbooking, substance-misuse education, tutoring, and community service projects.

Also, Boys Town is a group home model for youths engaging in or at risk for delinquency. Many of the Boys Town youths have serious emotional/behavioral problems and are not able to stay in their own family homes but can function safely in a community setting. The goal of the intervention is to reunite youths with their families. The program has five key elements: 1) building and maintaining healthy relationships; 2) interpersonal and life skills development; 3) moral and social development; 4) a family-style approach; and 5) teaching and practicing self-government and self-determination. The average length of stay for Boys Town youths is 12 to 18 months (Huefner et al., 2007; Thompson et al., 1996; Thompson et al., 2005). 

Over the past 20 years, the number of youths held for an offense in group homes has decreased substantially. In 2003 there were 7,120 youths in group homes being held for an offense, compared with 1,381 in 2021—a decrease of 81 percent (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b). Similarly, the number of group homes that house youths charged with or adjudicated in juvenile court has decreased from 1,135 in 2002 to 219 in 2020, also an 81 percent decline (Puzzanchera et al., 2022b).

In 2021, 82 percent of youths in group homes were restricted within the facility or its grounds by locked doors, gates, or fences some or all of the time. The percentage of youths in group homes with locks has changed over time. Between 2003 and 2013, 56 percent of the youths in group homes were in locked facilities, compared with 82 percent of youths between 2015 and 2021. Also in 2021, 7 percent of the youths in group homes were part of the detained population, 89 percent were in the committed population, and 3 percent were in the diverted population. Further, 78 percent of youths in group homes in 2021 were in privately run programs. Youths in group homes were the most likely to be in privately run programs, compared with youths in all other residential program types (e.g., detention centers, shelters, reception/diagnostic centers, boot camps, ranch/wilderness camps, residential treatment centers, and long-term secure facilities) in 2021 (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b).

Ranch/Wilderness Camps

Ranch/wilderness camps are residential facilities for youths whose behavior does not necessitate the strict confinement of a long-term secure facility, often allowing them greater contact with the community (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023a). They include ranches, forestry camps, wilderness or marine programs, and farms. Wilderness camps are related to other interventions such as wilderness therapy and adventure therapy (Dobud, Cavanaugh, and Harper, 2020), but to be considered wilderness or adventure therapy the program must include an element of therapeutic process (Beck and Wong, 2022).  

Wilderness camps provide participants with a series of physically challenging outdoor activities designed to prevent or reduce delinquent behavior and recidivism as an alternative to traditional locked residential settings (Tarolla et al., 2002; Bettmann, Russell, and Parry, 2013). Key components typically include therapeutic camping, rock climbing, wagon train trips, overnight solo experiences, alternative schools, family counseling, and individual and group therapy sessions (Beck and Wong, 2022; Roberts, 2004). These programs tend to vary in terms of settings, eligibility criteria, types of activities, duration, involvement of family members, and therapeutic goals (Beck and Wong, 2022; Roberts, 2004; Samuel, 2020). Some programs target youths at risk of becoming involved in the justice system or low-risk, system-involved youths, whereas other programs treat youths who already have been adjudicated for a delinquency offense (Roberts, 2004; Wilson and Lipsey, 2000; Samuel, 2020).

The number of ranches/wilderness camps in the United States for youths in the juvenile justice system decreased by 85 percent from 2000 to 2020 (from 142 camps to 22 camps) [Puzzanchera et al., 2022b]. The number of youths held for an offense in ranches/wilderness camps decreased by 97 percent from 2001 to 2021 (from 7,737 youths to 252) [Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b]. During the past 25 years, 94 percent of the youths in ranch/wilderness camps have been part of the committed population (which means these camps could be used as alternatives to secure confinement), 4 percent were part of the detained population (which means these camps could be used as alternatives to secure detention), and 2 percent were in the diverted population. During this time, 91 percent of the youths in ranches/wilderness camps have been boys, while 9 percent were girls; also, 34 percent were Black, 33 percent were Hispanic, 28 percent were white, 2 percent were Asian, and 1 percent were American Indian (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b).

A Wilson and Lipsey (2000) meta-analysis wilderness camp program evaluations found that youths who participated in wilderness challenges exhibited less delinquent behavior, improved interpersonal adjustment (social skills), improved self-esteem, and improved behavior or performance in school, compared with youths in control groups who did not participate. Programs with relatively intense physical activities or with therapeutic enhancements (such as individual counseling and therapeutic group sessions) produced the greatest reductions in delinquent behavior. The largest positive effects were found in evaluations of relatively short-term programs. However, few of the 28 studies included in the analyses compared youths sent to a wilderness camp with youths sent to a residential institution. The others compared youths in wilderness camps with youths on probation or no treatment or included all institutionalized youths (with some sent to wilderness camps). 

Specialized Foster Care/Treatment Foster Care

Specialized foster care is a post-adjudication, adult-mediated treatment model that recruits and trains foster families to offer placement and treatment for youths with histories of chronic and severe delinquency or child welfare system involvement (Åström et al., 2020; Chamberlain, Leve, and DeGarmo, 2007; Saldana et al., 2019). Foster parents provide one-on-one mentoring and consistent discipline for rule violations to the youths. Youths are supervised closely at home, in the community, and at school (Chamberlain, Leve, and DeGarmo, 2007; Chamberlain and Reid, 1998; Chor et al., 2023; Poulton et al., 2014). 

An example of this type of alternative is Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC), which is now called Treatment Foster Care Oregon (Åström et al., 2020). The program is for youths who have problems with chronic antisocial behavior, emotional disturbance, and delinquency. Youths live in a family setting with specially trained foster parents for 6 to 9 months. The treatment is delivered by a professional team and aims to increase structure, healthy functioning, and the ability to abide by social norms. Youths reside in a community setting and are expected to go to an ordinary school, with attendance initially monitored daily. Only one youth with delinquency charges is placed in the foster home at a time, with the hope of reunification with the family of origin within a year. Intervention activities include support for foster parents; family therapy for biological parents (or other aftercare resources); skills training for youth; supportive therapy for youth; school-based behavioral interventions and academic support; and psychiatric consultation and medication management, when needed (Åström et al., 2020; Chamberlain and Reid, 1998; Chamberlain, Leve, and DeGarmo, 2007; Saldana et al., 2019). For information on the effectiveness of the program, see the Outcome Evidence section.

Boot Camps

Boot camps emphasize physical activity, drills, and manual labor. Juvenile boot camps employ strict rules and drill instructor tactics that are designed to break down youths’ resistance (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023a). The primary goal is to reduce recidivism by modifying participants’ problem behaviors, including antisocial behaviors that likely increase the youths’ odds of reoffending. This goal is based on the idea that the routine, discipline, and interaction with program staff will teach youths self-control and respect, and also shock them into behaving respectfully and obediently. Boot camps usually operate like military basic training. Behavior modification occurs through a reinforcement of positive behavior and immediate punishment of negative behavior. A secondary goal is to provide cost-effective sentencing alternatives to incarceration. Some juvenile boot camps also concentrate on improving youths’ literacy and academic achievement and on reducing drug and alcohol use (Farrington, Gaffney, and White, 2022; Meade and Steiner, 2010; Parent, 2003; Tarolla et al., 2002; Tyler, Darville, and Stalnaker, 2001; Williams, 2016).

Boot camps for youths were first introduced in the 1980s, became increasingly popular as a correctional sanction, and were widely adopted and implemented throughout the United States (Meade and Steiner, 2010; Parent, 2003), before their use steadily declined throughout the 2000s and 2010s (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b). In 2021, there were only 57 youths in boot camps as a result of an offense. This was a reduction of nearly 98 percent since 2001, when 2,906 youths were involved. From 2001 to 2021, the number of youths in boot camps declined every census year (Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023b).

Research using qualitative data has shown that youths like the physical activity aspect of boot camps and take pride in their appearance and cleanliness. However, they are less positive about the approach to discipline. Also, there have been several implementation difficulties, including sites being located far from youths’ homes and lack of adequate transition support to ensure community reintegration (Farrington et al., 2002; Gaffney, Farrington, and White, 2021; KPMG, 2014).

Several systematic reviews and meta-analyses have examined the effects of boot camps for youth in the juvenile justice system (Aos et al., 2001; Riphagen, 2010; Wilson et al., 2008). For example, a meta-analysis of studies on boot camps completed before February 2008 included 17 unique samples of youths, representing a total of more than 5,000 youths (Wilson, MacKenzie, and Mitchell, 2008). The studies were located in various parts of the United States, including Denver, CO; Mobile, AL; Cleveland, OH; California; and various counties throughout Florida (Bay, Leon, Manatee, Martin, Pinellas, and Polk). The primary outcome of interest was recidivism. The analysis looked at nonviolent/nonperson crimes, mixed crimes (violent and nonviolent), and total crimes. The researchers found that, across the 17 independent samples of juvenile boot camp participants, the likelihood of boot camp participants recidivating was roughly equal to the likelihood of comparison participants recidivating (Wilson, MacKenzie, and Mitchell, 2008).

Similarly, a systematic review published in 2010 found that boot camps, by themselves, typically did not have an effect on participants’ odds of recidivism (Meade and Steiner, 2010). However, the review also found that participation in boot camps seemed to improve youths’ attitudes and other behaviors while in the camps. Boot camps also appeared to reduce the number of confinement beds that jurisdictions require, often resulting in cost savings. Conversely, other studies have found that boot camps are more expensive than the cost of regular detention centers (Gaffney, Farrington, and White, 2021).

Although the two previous reviews found no effect on recidivism, Aos and colleagues (2001) found that the recidivism rate for boot camp participants was slightly higher, compared with youths who went through regular juvenile institutional facilities, in their analyses of 10 studies completed between 1996 and 1999. Many of the studies conclude that boot camps are not effective in reducing youths’ offending or antisocial behavior (Farrington, Gaffney, and White, 2022).

Some researchers have examined the effect of out-of-home placements on youth outcomes, without distinguishing between secure and nonsecure settings (e.g., Dawkins and Sorensen, 2015; Goodkind et al., 2020; Kilian, 2021; Lalayants and Prince, 2014; Ryon et al., 2013). For example, a study of state-level panel data found that increased levels of juvenile residential placement (both the detained and the committed populations) were associated with higher rates of violent offending. Increased levels of residential placement also were related to higher rates of property and drug offending (Dawkins and Sorensen, 2015). The authors concluded that their findings failed to support the deterrence and incapacitation hypotheses in relation to the institutionalization of youths who have offended. Another study compared two types of dispositions on recidivism: 1) residential placement and 2) probation (Ryon et al., 2013). Residential placements included a large state-run training school, smaller programs operated by contract providers, and state-run secure residential facilities operated by the department of children and families. The study found that youths who were placed on probation had lower recidivism rates than youths sent to residential placements.

Regardless of their self-classification, how youths are chosen for out-of-home placement and what happens within each of these residential facilities are important. Facilities vary considerably in their institutional climates, quality of staff, philosophical approaches, and availability of evidence-based treatment and programming (Billick and Mack, 2013; Caldwell et al., 2006; Dmitrieva et al., 2012; Hancock, 2017; Hockenberry and Sladky, 2020; Huefner and Ringle, 2012; Koyama, 2012; Lipsey et al., 2010; Ribeiro da Silva et al., 2021). According to the risk–need–responsivity principles: the intensity of services should be matched to the youth’s risk; interventions should target the specific needs that lead to the youth’s delinquent behaviors; and interventions should use cognitive and social learning approaches that are responsive to the specific strengths, motivations, demographics, and other characteristics of the targeted youth (Andrews, Bonta, and Wormith, 2011; Andrews and Dowden, 2006; Andrews et al., 1990; Dowden and Andrews, 2004; Latessa, Listwan, Koetzle, 2015; Miller and Maloney, 2020). 

Also, characteristics of a given facility may moderate whether there are unintended harmful effects related to residential placement. These characteristics include whether a facility is secure, but also many others. For example, a study of 158 facilities in Florida identified four operational variables that were significant predictors of recidivism: 1) the quality of intervention management (i.e., case management and the delivery of appropriate juvenile programming), 2) health care services, 3) security, and 4) program management (Hancock, 2017). 

Overall, researchers have found that residential programs that produce positive outcomes for youth incorporate therapeutic programming, address criminogenic needs, are multipurpose in nature, create family-like settings, provide prosocial activities, use cognitive–behavioral techniques, and teach skill building (e.g., Anderson et al., 2019; Chamberlain and Reid, 1998; Goldstein et al., 2018; Leeman, Gibbs, and Fuller, 1993; Lipsey, 2009; Lipsey et al., 2010; Strom et al., 2017; Thompson et al., 2005), regardless of whether they are secure or not secure. However, even well-designed and well-implemented programs can be harmful to low-risk youth without the need for them (Bernburg, Kroh, and Rivera, 2006; Cullen and Johnson, 2014; Dishion and Dodge, 2005; Gatti, Tremblay, and Vitaro, 2009; Sweeten, G. 2006).

There are many youth programs, services, and interventions on the juvenile justice continuum, which consists of prevention, intervention, treatment, and reentry. Several can be used as alternatives to detention or confinement. What distinguishes community-based alternatives from other community-based interventions is that the former are used instead of secure detention or confinement. These alternatives can include probation, home detention/confinement (with and without electronic monitoring), day and evening treatment programs, and intensive supervision. 

Like the factors that distinguish effective residential programs from ineffective ones (see the Benefits and Consequences of Any Out-of-Home Placement section), community-based alternatives are most effective when they serve higher risk youth, target dynamic risk factors with cognitive behavioral modalities, integrate family-focused therapy, and employ trained and qualified staff (Keller and DuBois, 2021; Lipsey, 2009; Lowenkamp et al., 2010b; Ryon, Winokur Early, and Kosloski, 2017). 


From the inception of the juvenile court, probation officers have played a central role; and today, almost all youths involved in the juvenile justice system have contact with juvenile probation staff (Myers and Orts, 2023). Juvenile probation is the supervision and monitoring of justice-involved youths in the community, rather than placing them out of the home. Youths on probation must comply with the terms and conditions of probation imposed by the court. Juvenile probation serves two primary purposes: 1) it holds youths who have offended accountable to protect public safety, and 2) it supports youths’ rehabilitation through services. Probation can be used pre-adjudication (also known as pretrial probation) and serve as an alternative to secure detention; or it can be a disposition, which could serve as an alternative to secure confinement (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2021; Goldstein et al., 2016; Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023).

An article about juvenile justice asserts that juvenile probation can be “helpful, harmful, or ineffectual for youth,” depending on how it is conceptualized and implemented (Myers and Orts, 2023:159). The authors state that juvenile probation approaches are most helpful when they follow the risk–need–responsivity (RNR) model, implement holistic and individualized case planning, enhance racial equity and inclusion, and engage youths, families, and communities. As described in Benefits and Consequences of Any Out-of-Home Placement, the RNR model asserts that the intensity of services should be matched to the youth’s risk; interventions should target youth’s specific needs; and interventions should use cognitive and social learning approaches that are responsive to the specific characteristics of the targeted youth (Andrews, Bonta, and Wormith, 2011; Andrews and Dowden, 2006; Andrews et al., 1990; Dowden and Andrews, 2004; Latessa, Listwan, and Koetzle, 2015; Miller and Maloney, 2020).

Other suggestions for effective probation supervision include using developmentally appropriate language in probation orders, engaging the family, and ensuring that supervision aligns with research on adolescent development. Also, research indicates that probation should be time limited and purposeful. It can be harmful to youths when conditions of probation are not individualized and when there are too many requirements. This leads to unnecessary detention or incarceration for technical violations (Goldstein et al., 2016; National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 2021; National Juvenile Defender Center, 2016). 

Today, probation is the most common juvenile court disposition for youths who have offended. In 2020, formal probation was the most severe sanction ordered by the court for 66 percent of youths adjudicated for delinquency offenses (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:52). Also, it was the most severe sanction ordered by the court for 56 percent of youths adjudicated with status offenses (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:83). Between 2005 and 2020, the number of delinquency cases that resulted in probation declined 74 percent (from 345,600 to 88,700) [Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:50], and the number of status offenses cases that resulted in probation declined 85 percent (from 63,200 to 9,500) [Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:80]. These decreases are due to reductions in the number of youths referred to court (and not to reductions in the percentage of youths before the court being placed on probation). Probation is also used for youth who are referred to juvenile court but not petitioned. This is considered voluntary probation (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023:52). 

Several studies have found that postdisposition probation supervision is a viable alternative to residential placement for some youths (e.g., Ryon et al., 2013; Loughran et al., 2009). For example, an evaluation involving more than 3,000 juvenile justice system–involved youths with juvenile court dispositions in Connecticut found that the youths who were placed on probation had lower recidivism rates than youths sent to residential placements (Ryon et al., 2013). This study matched youths in residential placement with youths on probation, using indicators such as prior referral, age at first offense, gender, and race. Another study of youths with serious offenses processed in juvenile court found that youths who were put on probation had similar levels of subsequent rearrest and self-reported offending to those youths sent to a more expensive institutional placement (Loughran et al., 2009). For more information on probation, see the Model Programs Guide literature review on Formal, Post-Adjudication Juvenile Probation Services

In-Home Detention/Confinement

In-home detention/confinement is a community-based alternative designed to restrict the activities and movements of youths in the community. Home confinement can be used both pre- and post-adjudication (i.e., as an alternative to detention or confinement). In-home detention/confinement is also called home confinement, in-home probation, tethering, or house arrest. With in-home detention/confinement, youths charged with offenses live at home, may attend school or work (or both), and fulfill other necessary responsibilities while being closely monitored to ensure they comply with the conditions that the court has set. It is enforced in two ways: 1) monitoring by a probation officer who conducts home visits and/or 2) electronic monitoring (see the next section). 

One study examining the effect of in-home probation (i.e., in-home confinement), when compared with two out-of-home dispositional options, found that youths assigned to in-home probation were less likely to recidivate than youths assigned to a residential probation camp (typically 4- to 9-month placements in a secure setting) or to a group home (typically 6- to 9-month placements with a variety of services) [Ryan, Abrams, and Huang, 2014]. The in-home probation intervention required monitoring by a probation officer while the youth remained in the family home. Conditions of probation varied by youth but included compliance with community-based treatment programs along with adherence to several rules, such as school attendance, drug testing, and curfew.

In-home detention/confinement has some drawbacks. For example, many youths (especially girls) experience interpersonal violence at home, making mandated, extended time at home a risk factor for both victimization and offending (Abram et al., 2004; Anderson et al., 2022; Saar et al., 2015). Also, some researchers have argued the use of in-home detention/confinement and electronic monitoring is a “punishment without treatment” that can exacerbate recidivism risk (Anderson et al., 2022:30).

Electronic Monitoring

Electronic monitoring is used widely for court-involved youths by supervising a youth’s whereabouts electronically, thus maintaining a record of the youth’s movements “moment by moment” (Austin, Johnson, and Weitzer, 2005; Weisburd, 2015). Electronic monitoring encompasses a wide range of systems and components, including home monitoring devices, wrist bracelets, ankle bracelets, field monitoring devices, alcohol and drug testing devices, voice verification systems, and global positioning systems (Austin, Johnson, and Weitzer, 2005; Bales et al., 2010; Weisburd, 2015). It is believed that, through electronic monitoring, individuals who offend will be deterred from engaging in criminal behavior—as it increases the probability of detection by law enforcement and limits the freedom of users (Bales et al., 2010; Gies et al., 2013). Overall, electronic monitoring is viewed as a sanction that is more punitive than traditional probation but less restrictive than pre-adjudication detention or post-adjudication secure confinement (Gable and Gable, 2005). 

Electronic monitoring often is used in conjunction with in-home detention/confinement. Youths on electronic monitoring must comply with specific terms and conditions, depending on the jurisdiction. These terms and conditions may include checking with probation officers before leaving their homes, participating in specific programming, attending school regularly, obeying parents, drug testing, staying away from certain individuals (members of gangs, for example), properly charging the device, and abiding by a curfew (Weisburd, 2015). Proponents of home confinement and electronic monitoring point to financial savings, decreased recidivism, and the ability to monitor and pinpoint youths’ locations in real time (Charles, 1989; Raider, 1995; Sklaver, 2010; Weisburd, 2015).

Electric monitoring sometimes is used as a condition of probation without in-home detention/confinement. In a study of more than 18,000 youths on probation in Marion County, IN, electronic monitoring was a condition in 15 percent of the cases (Dir et al., 2021).

Several challenges to in-home detention/confinement and electronic monitoring have been identified. For example, constant supervision may increase the likelihood of a youth coming to the attention of the juvenile court for violating one of the probation conditions set by the court. In the study mentioned above (Dir et al., 2021), youths’ assignment to electronic monitoring resulted in shorter time to technical violations, compared with youths on probation who did not have electronic monitoring. Technical violations are noncriminal, nondelinquent incidents in which an individual fails to meet the terms of their probation (e.g., by skipping school or missing curfew). These violations can result in consequences such as secure detention and further processing in the juvenile justice system. 

Second, electronic monitoring sometimes is used for youths who would not otherwise be securely detained or confined, thereby “widening the net” and increasing surveillance of youths who would not otherwise be tracked so closely (Weisburd, 2015). See the Considerations Related to Alternatives to Secure Detention and Confinement section for more information about net widening.

Finally, as mentioned in the description of in-home detention/confinement above, keeping youths at home—when home is a source of abuse or neglect—exacerbates risk factors (Abram et al., 2004; Anderson et al., 2022; Saar et al., 2015). Also, if used without additional services, electronic monitoring can be considered a “punishment without treatment” that can exacerbate recidivism risk (Anderson et al., 2022). The effectiveness of electronic monitoring is enhanced when it is used in conjunction with interventions based on social learning theory or other therapeutic interventions (Burrell and Gable, 2008).

Day or Evening Treatment

Day (or evening) treatment, which also is referred to as day or evening reporting centers or community-based placement, is a highly structured, nonresidential, community-based alternative that provides intensive supervision to youths. It can be used both pre- and post-adjudication (as an alternative to detention or confinement). Youths are required to report to the treatment facility daily at specified times (either during the day or in the evening) for a certain number of days each week (generally at least 5 days a week) but are allowed to return home at night (Garland et al., 2016; Jain et al., 2019; Winokur, Tollett, and Jackson, 2002).

Day treatment centers can differ from each other in several ways, including the target population, eligibility criteria, services offered, goals of treatment, caseload, and requirements of completion. Treatment services may include individual and group counseling, recreation, education, vocational training, employment counseling, life skills and cognitive skills training, and community resource referrals, which vary by jurisdiction and program (Champion, Harvey, and Schanz, 2011; Craddock and Graham, 1996; Garland et al., 2016; Oselin, Mahutga, and Flores, 2023).

Many of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives (JDAI) sites use evening reporting centers (ERCs) as alternatives to secure detention. Researchers examined a sample of seven JDAI sites with ERCs (Garland et al., 2016). They found that most of the sites operated on weekdays within the hours of 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. and that the average length of stay ranged from 15 to 41 days. The goals of these programs were to reduce the number of youths exposed to secure detention, increase appearances at court, enhance public safety, and reduce recidivism. The greatest challenges in implementing and sustaining the ERCs were difficulties in finding and sustaining funding.

Alameda County, CA, has also used ERCs as an alternative to secure detention (Jain et al., 2019). The ERCs attempted to provide temporary structure and supervision year-round, as it would be if the youth were in detention. They typically provided 4 hours of programming daily within a positive and supportive youth-friendly environment. Each site had a clear structure, processes and procedures for effectively engaging youth, and a schedule of activities. Staff worked closely with the youths to understand their needs and goals and together identify activities to help the youths achieve their aspirations. All sites engaged families and provided academic support and career readiness, in addition to other site-specific activities such as basketball, wrestling, nutrition, or gardening. Youths stayed for 30 days on average in the program.

Also, day treatment programs can be used as a part of graduated sanction after adjudication (e.g., Lipsey et al., 2010; Winokur, Tollett, and Jackson, 2002). In Florida, day treatment programs—which provide education and rehabilitative programming to committed youths who continue to live at home—represent the least-restrictive portion of the juvenile commitment continuum (Winokur, Tollett, and Jackson, 2002). An example of a juvenile day treatment program implemented in Florida is the AMIkids Community-Based Day Treatment Services. AMIkids offers a variety of community-based, experiential treatment interventions for youths adjudicated  for delinquency offenses  (AMIkids, n.d.; Winokur Early et al., 2010). During the day, youths receive intervention services and attend school at the day treatment center in an academic setting. At night, youths return home, which encourages family involvement in the treatment process. Service delivery is planned in eight integrated components: 1) education, 2) challenge experiences, 3) cognitive behavioral therapy, 4) strengths-based case management, 5) behavior modification, 6) family partnership, 7) problem solving and social skills development, and 8) community service. For information about the effectiveness of the program, see the Outcome Evidence section.

Intensive Supervision Programs

Intensive supervision programs (ISPs) are community-based, nonresidential alternatives that provide a high degree of control over youths, including strict conditions of compliance and high levels of contact from the probation officer or caseworker, to ensure public safety. ISPs typically use a variety of risk-control strategies (e.g., multiple weekly face-to-face contacts, evening visits, urine testing, electronic monitoring) and deliver a wide range of services to address youths’ needs. Compared with traditional supervision, ISPs emphasize increased supervision intensity and control. The overall goal of juvenile ISPs is to reduce recidivism in youths while keeping them out of detention or confinement. They generally fall into two categories: 1) those that serve youths on probation who have been assessed as high risk and 2) those developed specifically as alternatives to institutionalization/confinement. ISPs can also serve as alternatives to secure detention (Austin, Johnson, and Weitzer, 2005; Drake, 2011; Washington State Institute for Public Policy, 2024).

Generally used as a post-adjudication option (as an alternative to confinement or traditional probation supervision), ISPs are diverse in design but can be characterized by three primary features: 1) smaller caseloads for juvenile probation officers, 2) more frequent face-to-face contacts, and 3) strict conditions of compliance with stiffer penalties for violations (Bouchard and Wong, 2018; Sarver, Molloy, and Butters, 2012). Smaller caseloads allow juvenile probation officers to make more frequent contact with youths and provide more specific treatment and services to youths and their families who may have specific needs, such as mental health services, alcohol and substance use treatment, parenting skills training, or child protective services. These services usually take place in schools, community centers, or other settings in the youth’s own community (Lane et al., 2005; Jalbert et al., 2011). Other components of juvenile ISPs may vary but can include drug/urinalysis testing, electronic monitoring, mentoring, and participation in programming (such as tutoring, counseling, or job training) [Washington State Institute for Public Policy, 2024; Weinrath, Donatelli, and Murchison, 2016)].

Meta-analytic research has examined the impacts of juvenile intensive supervision programs. Overall, there were mixed effects. Sarver, Molloy, and Butters (2012) found that youths under intensive supervision had statistically significantly lower recidivism rates, compared with youths under regular supervision. Bouchard and Wong (2018) and the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (2019) found that intensive supervision did not make a statistically significant impact on measures of recidivism or crime rates. However, these analyses did not compare intensive supervision programs with secure detention or confinement.

Several theoretical frameworks have been used to support less-secure residential placement and community-based alternatives to secure residential placements. 

Life Course Theory

Life course theory suggests that each life stage influences the next; it examines how events in one developmental stage affect future developmental stages through trajectories and turning points (Elder, 1985; Laub, Sampson, and Sweeten, 2017). Turning points, which can be negative or positive, alter one’s life trajectory. Experiencing secure detention or confinement could act as a turning point for youths, changing their opportunity structures during the very important transition to adulthood (Aizer and Doyle, 2013; Gilman, Hill, and Hawkins, 2015; Gilman et al., 2021; Powell, 2022; Schiraldi, Western, and Bradner, 2015).

Labeling Theory

Labeling theory argues that official reactions to youth offending may lead to future offending (Barrick, 2017; Restivo and Lanier, 2015; Sweeten, 2006). According to labeling theory, publicly defining and treating a youth as deviant may result in exclusions from conventional society, a possible identity change of the youth, and an increase in the likelihood of subsequent deviance (Bernburg, Kroh, and Rivera, 2006). For example, an official deviance label, often in the form of formal court involvement or residential interventions, can affect a youth’s immediate social networks and assign stigma, leading to subsequent deviance, delinquency, and criminality (Bernburg, Kroh, and Rivera, 2006; Cullen and Johnson, 2014; Kroska, Lee, and Carr, 2017). Labeling theory also argues that extralegal characteristics, such as race and class, influence whether official intervention will be imposed (Barrick, 2017).

Peer Contagion

The term peer contagion describes a mutual influence process that occurs between an individual and a peer and includes behaviors and emotions that potentially undermine one’s own development or cause harm to others (Dishion and Tipsord, 2011). Several studies have pointed to the risks of grouping deviant youths together (Bayer, Hjalmarsson, and Pozen, 2009; Gaes and Camp, 2009; Gatti, Tremblay, and Vitaro, 2009; Leve and Chamberlain, 2005) and identify these risks as a reason for using alternatives to secure detention (e.g., Walker and Herting, 2020) and secure confinement (e.g., Stevenson, 2014).


Noninterventionism, sometimes referred to as radical nonintervention or intensive nonintervention, was influenced by labeling theory and advocates for leaving individuals alone whenever possible (Clear, 2020; Cullen and Johnson, 2014:68–70).

Deterrence Theory

Proponents of deterrence theory believe that people choose to obey or violate the law after calculating the gains and consequences of their actions. The two types of deterrence are general deterrence, which is designed to prevent crime in the general population, and specific deterrence, which is designed to deter only the individual from committing that crime in the future. According to deterrence theory, youths make decisions based on the certainty, swiftness, and severity of punishment. Many of the traditional juvenile justice options, such as secure confinement and transfer to adult court, are based on deterrence theory (Jordan and Myers, 2011; Lipsey et al., 2010; Singer and McDowall, 1988; Stahlkopf, Males, and Macallair, 2010; Walker and Herting, 2020). Also, intensive supervision programs and electronic monitoring operate according to deterrence theory by raising youths’ certainty of being caught and punished, which then should deter them from reoffending (Lowenkamp et al., 2010a; Maxwell and Gray, 2000).

When implementing and evaluating alternatives, two important considerations are the risk of “net widening” and what constitutes a “positive outcome.” 

Net Widening

Net widening occurs when an intervention designed for youths at a certain risk level is used for youths at lower risk levels, resulting in a situation where at least some of the youths who participate would have been treated more informally (or not at all) if the intervention had not existed (Cate, 2016; Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 2001; DeNike, 2021; Garland et al., 2016; Hobbs, Wulf–Ludden, and Strawhun, 2013; May et al, 2016; Weisburd, 2015). For example, net widening occurs when alternatives to detention and confinement (or other diversion options) are used for youths who otherwise would not have been sent to a secure facility or been further processed in the juvenile justice system (Cate, 2016; Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 2001; DeNike, 2021). In net widening, youths who do not meet the program eligibility criteria are referred to these programs. There are several reasons this could happen. Decisionmakers may believe the nonqualifying youths can benefit from these programs and that this is the only way they can access the services. Or, decisionmakers may believe that lower-risk youths are more likely to succeed by completing the programs and achieving positive outcomes. Availability of electronic monitoring can also lead to net widening, when decisionmakers decide to monitor youths who would otherwise not meet the criteria (Weisburd, 2015). 

Researchers have identified several harms related to net widening. One criticism is that low-risk youths become subject to excessive court control and oversight, which increases the risk of additional sanctioning such as being detained on probation violations or new charges (Cate, 2016; Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 2001; Leiber and Peck, 2013; Mears et al., 2016; Weisburd, 2015). Also, net widening diverts resources away from the higher-risk youths who most need them (Cate, 2016; Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 2001).

Identifying the Desired Outcomes of Alternatives to Detention/Confinement

Normally, in program evaluations, researchers hypothesize that the intervention will produce better outcomes for youths, compared with a comparison group of youths who do not receive the intervention. However, sometimes researchers will find that an alternative to detention or confinement (i.e., the intervention) does not produce better outcomes than the residential option. Yet, finding no statistically significant differences between the groups can be considered a positive outcome, particularly if it was achieved without the high financial cost of a residential program or the negative iatrogenic effects for youths related to residential placements (as long as the alternative does not produce worse effects).

For example, a meta-analysis of 27 existing studies of youths with serious charges found no difference in recidivism rates between youths with custodial sentences and youth with noncustodial sentences (Creemers et al., 2023). Another study examined 432 youths who violated probation in two counties in Washington, comparing one group of youths who participated in a formalized hearing and a subsequent stay in detention with another group of youths who participated in the Families and Schools Together (FAST) program (van Wormer and Campbell, 2016). FAST offered two sessions of accountability skill development to address targeted criminogenic needs (without detention). The two groups showed no statistically significant difference in recidivism or future probation violations. The study authors concluded that, to save costs, the court should consider expanding the alternative-to-detention option.

Similarly, a study of youths who were found guilty of a serious offense in Maricopa County, AZ, or Philadelphia County, PA, compared youths who were placed on probation with youths who were sent to a residential program (i.e., placed “out of the community”) [Loughran et al., 2009]. The study found no statistically significant differences in future rates of rearrest or self-reported offending, which led the researchers to advocate for probation over residential placement.

The various types of alternatives to detention and confinement yield mixed results. Evaluations of each type of alternative tend to examine different outcomes.

  • Alternatives to secure confinement generally aim to produce similar or better outcomes than post-adjudication secure confinement facilities (e.g., Bright et al., 2015; Chamberlain, Leve, and DeGarmo, 2007; Winokur Early et al., 2010), which are costly (Justice Policy Institute, 2009; Justice Policy Institute, 2014; and Justice Policy Institute, 2020; Yoder, 2020) and can also result in unintended consequences for a youth (Gatti, Tremblay, and Vitaro, 2009; Lipsey et al., 2010; National Research Council, 2013). Studies of these alternatives generally measure recidivism or other outcomes such as school performance or social–emotional indicators. 
  • The success of alternatives to detention often is determined by measuring appearances in court and reoffending while the case is being processed (see, for example, Garland et al., 2016; Hinton Hoytt et al., 2001). This is because the primary purposes of secure detention are to ensure that youths appear for all court hearings and to protect the community from juvenile offending during court processing (Austin, Johnson, and Weitzer, 2005). Also, some evaluators measure other effects of secure detention, such as reductions in recidivism after adjudication (e.g., DeNike, 2021).

A sample of programs and practices with evaluations is provided below, starting with evaluations of residential alternatives to secure confinement, continuing with community-based alternatives to secure confinement, and concluding with alternatives to secure detention. Most of the evaluations of the programs and practices described in this section examine outcomes for the youths who participated in the intervention compared with youths who were placed in secure detention or confinement.

Alternatives to Secure Confinement (Post-Adjudication)–Residential

The Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC) is a residential facility that provides mental health treatment to serious and violent youths in secure correctional institutions.  Typically, youths are transferred to MJTC when they are unresponsive to customary rehabilitation services provided in correctional institutions. MJTC seeks to control and rehabilitate such youths by combining the security consciousness of a traditional correctional institution with the strong mental health orientation of a private psychiatric facility. The staff consists of experienced mental health professionals. The overarching goal of the program is to replace the antagonistic responses and feelings created by traditional correctional institutions with more conventional bonds and roles, which can encourage positive social development.  Youths who participated in this program demonstrated a statistically significant lower likelihood of violent (but not general) recidivism and had a longer offense-free period in the community before committing felony, violent, or violent-felony (but not misdemeanor) offenses, compared with control group participants who were treated in conventional juvenile correctional institution settings (Caldwell et al., 2006; Caldwell and Van Rybroek, 2005).

Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care–Adolescents (MTFC–A) is a behavioral treatment alternative to residential placement for adolescents with antisocial behavior, emotional disturbance, and delinquency. Chamberlain, Leve, and DeGarmo (2007) conducted an evaluation of  MTFC–A that involved 103 girls referred by juvenile court judges in Oregon between 1997 and 2002. The girls had been mandated to out-of-home care because of chronic delinquency, and most were randomly assigned to either the  MTFC–A condition (n = 37) or a group residential care comparison condition (n = 44). In the group care condition, programming concentrated on establishing prosocial norms through therapeutic group work, during which youth confronted one another about negative behavior and participated in discipline and decision-making. The MTFC–A condition is described in the Residential Alternatives to Secure Detention and Confinement section.

At the 2–year follow-up, there were no statistically significant differences between the girls in the treatment and comparison groups in self-reports of delinquency or criminal referrals. However, the girls who participated in MTFC–A spent statistically significantly fewer days in a locked setting at the 2–year follow-up. A similar study with 85 boys found that, after 1 year, the boys who participated in MTFC–A had a greater reduction in official criminal referral rates, fewer self-reported general delinquent and criminal activities, fewer self-reported index offenses (e.g., serious property and person offenses such as auto theft or aggravated assault), fewer self-reported felony assaults, and fewer days incarcerated in local detention facilities, compared with boys who were placed in group care (all statistically significant differences) [Chamberlain and Reid, 1998]. Boys in MTFC–A were also less likely to run away from their placements and more likely to complete the treatment program than the boys in group care.

Targeted RECLAIM (Ohio) is a diversion program intended to reduce juvenile recidivism by treating youths in the community instead of incarceration. The program offers community-based cognitive–behavior therapy programs, two community-based family interventions, and residential programs. The services depend on the specific needs of the youth.

  • Community-based programming includes cognitive–behavioral therapy programs, such as Thinking for a Change and Aggression Replacement Therapy. Targeted RECLAIM (Ohio) also implements Effective Practices in Community Supervision (EPICS), which teaches probation officers to better adhere to evidence-based principles. 
  • The two community-based family interventions are 1) High Fidelity Wraparound, which is a strength-based approach that coordinates services across various agencies to serve youths in their natural environment, and 2) Multisystemic Therapy (MST) [see the description of MST below in the description of community-based alternatives to secure confinement]. 
  • The residential programs are designed to target higher risk youths (compared with other treatment options) and generally offer more-intensive services in terms of dosage and number of services offered. Treatment options in residential programs include orientation classes, education services, mental health services, vocation and job readiness services, substance misuse treatment, recreation services, and cognitive–behavioral structured treatment. 

An evaluation involving about 1,400 youths found that youths who participated in Targeted RECLAIM (Ohio) were statistically significantly less likely to be incarcerated during the 1-year follow-up, compared with youths who did not participate (Labrecque, Schweitzer, and Mattick, 2018).

Alternatives to Secure Confinement (Post-Adjudication)–Community Based

AMIkids is a community-based, day-treatment intervention. An evaluation in Florida compared recidivism outcomes of youths who completed the community-based AMIkids program with a matched sample of youths who completed residential programming after disposition, finding that youths participating in the AMIkids Community-Based Day Treatment services were statistically significantly less likely than the comparison group to be adjudicated or convicted for an offense within 12 months of release (38 percent versus 43 percent, respectively) [Winokur Early et al., 2010]. Youths who received AMIkids day-treatment services were also significantly less likely to be rearrested for any offense (54 percent versus 59 percent, respectively), rearrested for a felony offense (30 percent versus 42 percent, respectively), convicted for a felony offense (18 percent versus 27 percent, respectively), and subsequently committed, placed on adult probation, or sentenced to prison (23 percent versus 29 percent, respectively)—compared with youths who completed residential programming. For additional information about AMIkids, see the Community-Based Alternatives to Detention and Confinement section.

Family-Centered Treatment (FCT) is a short-term, family-based program that is designed to reduce out-of-home placements for juvenile justice–involved youth. FCT uses a therapeutic model that requires family participation in the development of strategies and goals for success, and family adherence to the goals identified. Treatment is provided in the home or another natural setting, with several hours of contact in multiple sessions each week, and lasting an average of 6 months (Sullivan et al., 2012). A study conducted in Maryland with youths who had been adjudicated for a delinquency offense examined the outcomes of placement in FCT, compared with youths placed in group homes (Bright et al., 2015). The study authors found that youths who participated in FCT were significantly less likely to experience a future conviction or incarceration in either the juvenile or adult justice systems, compared with youth who were placed in a group home. 

Other alternatives have been suggested (e.g., Justice Policy Institute, 2009; Lipsey et al., 2010; Mendel, 2023; Orendain et al., 2022; Ryon, Winokur Early, and Kosloski, 2017; Schiraldi, 2020; Viljoen et al., 2023). These include programs with demonstrated positive outcomes such as

  • Multisystemic Therapy (MST), a family and community-based treatment program for adolescents with serious antisocial, delinquent, and other problem behaviors. Evaluations of MST have found statistically significant reductions in rearrests and number of days incarcerated. However, researchers did not find statistically significant differences in substance use outcomes (Borduin et al., 1995; Henggeler, Melton, and Smith, 1992; Timmons–Mitchell et al., 2006).
  • Parenting with Love and Limits (PLL), a program that combines group therapy and family therapy to treat youth. Researchers have found that participation in PLL results in statistically significant decreases in recidivism and improvements in behavior. However, there were no significant effects on measures of readiness to change (Winokur–Early and Smith, 2011).
  • Functional Family Therapy (FFT), a family-based program for high-risk youth that addresses complex and multidimensional problems through clinical practice that is flexibly structured and culturally sensitive. Program participants have shown a statistically significant reduction in general recidivism and risky behavior, but no effect on felony recidivism or caregiver strengths and needs (Celinska, Furrer, and Cheng, 2013; Gordon et al., 1988; Sexton and Turner, 2010). 

However, instead of comparing youths who participated in MST, PLL, or FFT with similar youths in secure detention or confinement, the comparison group youths generally were treated in the community, receiving regular probation services, monitoring, referrals to programs, etc. (Borduin et al., 1995; Gordon et al., 1988; Henggeler et al., 1992; Sawyer and Borduin, 2011; Sexton and Turner, 2010; Timmons–Mitchell et al., 2006; Winokur-Early and Smith, 2011).

Alternatives to Secure Detention (Pre-Adjudication)

The Detention Diversion Advocacy Program (DDAP) aims to divert youths charged with serious offenses who are either currently in detention or likely to be held in detention. DDAP is considered an intensive supervision intervention and an alternative to detention (Austin, Johnson, and Weitzer, 2005). By diverting youths from traditional processing in the juvenile justice system, DDAP participants remain in the community and have access to community-based care and support to comply with conditions of probation. A study using a quasi-experimental design on youths in San Francisco compared youths in the DDAP intervention with a group of system-involved youths who were not in DDAP. The study found that youths in DDAP were less likely to recidivate, less likely to recidivate on a felony charge, had fewer referrals to court, and had a lower average number of felony referrals, compared with youths who did not participate in DDAP (DeNike, 2021).

Secure detention and secure confinement are two distinct contact points in most juvenile justice systems. Because of the potential negative consequences related to secure detention and confinement, such as negative impacts on a youth’s mental and physical well-being, education, reoffending, and future employment (see, for example, Gilman et al., 2021; Gilman, Hill, and Hawkins, 2015; Leiber and Fox, 2005; Powell, 2022), alternatives have been developed. These include community-based alternatives, such as probation, electronic monitoring, and community-based treatment, and residential alternatives such as group homes, residential treatment centers, and shelter care. 

As a result of increased access to alternatives, decreasing juvenile arrests and referrals to court, and other juvenile justice reforms, the number of youths being held in secure detention and confinement has declined substantially over the past couple of decades (Butts and Pfaff, 2019; Cate, 2016; Cavanagh, 2022; Cavanagh and Grisso, 2022; Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023; Maggard, 2015; Petrosino, Fronius, and Zimiles, 2022; Skeem, Scott, and Mulvey, 2014). Recent data show the number of delinquency cases involving detention decreased 68 percent (from 402,000 to 127,700) and the number of status offense cases involving detention decreased 88 percent (from 20,100 to 2,500) between 2005 and 2020 (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023). Further, the number of cases adjudicated delinquent that resulted in out-of-home placement (including secure confinement) decreased 76 percent (from 151,600 to 35,900) between 2005 and 2020 (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023). 

Research evidence strongly supports reducing or eliminating the use of punitive and non-treatment-oriented detention and incarceration facilities (Laird, 2021; Mallett and Boitel, 2015; National Research Council, 2013). Research on effective juvenile justice intervention consistently concludes that 1) youths with low risk for reoffending should be diverted from the juvenile justice system (for more information, visit the MPG literature review on Diversion for Formal Juvenile Court Processing); 2) youths with moderate or high risk for reoffending should be subject to the minimal level of supervision and control consistent with public safety and be provided with appropriate, effective therapeutic services; 3) subjecting youth who offend to punishment beyond that which is inherent in the level of control necessary for public safety is likely to be counterproductive to reducing recidivism; and 4) rehabilitation treatments have potential to substantially reduce recidivism (Anderson et al., 2019; Lipsey, 2009; Lipsey et al., 2010; Lipsey and Cullen, 2007; Strom et al., 2017).

Several evaluations of community-based alternatives to secure detention and confinement find positive outcomes for youths, when compared with youths who are placed in secure detention or confinement (e.g., Chamberlain, Leve, and DeGarmo, 2007; DeNike, 2021; Winokur Early et al., 2010). For example, a study of youth in Maryland found that after adjudication for a delinquency offense, participation in Family-Centered Treatment (FCT)—a short-term, family-based program—resulted in reductions in future conviction or incarceration, compared with admittance to a group home or treatment group home (Bright et al., 2015). Also, a study of youth in Florida found that after juvenile court disposition, youths who participated in AMIkids—a community-based day-treatment intervention—were less likely to be rearrested, adjudicated, convicted and to experience a subsequent commitment for any offense within 12 months of release, compared with the youths who completed secure residential programming (Winokur Early et al., 2010).

Residential programs also can serve as alternatives. An evaluation of Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care–Adolescents (a behavioral treatment intervention for adolescents with antisocial behavior, emotional disturbance, and delinquency) found that boys who participated in the program showed a statistically significant drop in criminal referral rates, criminal activities, and days spent in lock up, compared with boys in group care. Also, group homes that use treatment models based on criminogenic needs (which can include substance-misuse treatment; CBT in group, individual, and family settings; skill building; and increasing prosocial leisure activities) have demonstrated reductions in recidivism when compared with youths on probation (Anderson et al., 2019). However, researchers have warned that it is important to limit the use of residential programs to those who really need them, to eliminate negative unintended consequences (Bernburg, Kroh, and Rivera, 2006; Cullen and Johnson, 2014; Dishion and Dodge, 2005; Gatti, Tremblay, and Vitaro, 2009; Sweeten, G. 2006).

Regardless of the setting, research indicates that successful interventions with youths who offend include specific characteristics, such as incorporating both supervision and a therapeutic approach. Specific evidence-based approaches include restorative practices; cognitive–behavioral techniques; providing multiple coordinated services; addressing dynamic criminogenic risks and needs; using graduated responses; involving the family; targeting the highest-risk youths for interventions; and building skills (e.g., social, academic, vocational) [Anderson et al., 2019; Evans–Chase and Zhou, 2014; Fritzon et al., 2021; Garrido and Morales Quinto, 2007; Latessa, Listwan, and Koetzle, 2015; Lipsey et al., 2010; Lipsey and Cullen, 2007; Tarolla et al., 2002; Wilson and Lipsey, 2000]. Researchers have shown that interventions with these characteristics can succeed with youth (Lipsey et al., 2010). 

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Suggested Reference: Development Services Group, Inc. 2024. Alternatives to Detention and Confinement. Model Programs Guide. Literature review. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/model-programs-guide/literature-reviews/alternatives-to-detention-and-confinement

Prepared by Development Services Group, Inc., under Contract no. 47QRAA20D002V. 

Last Update: February 2024