What to Look For to Help Youth Stay Out of the Juvenile Justice System

January 2016

In the United States, approximately 70,000 youth are detained in juvenile justice facilities. As educators, we often come in early contact with these youth, and our role as interveners cannot be overlooked.

Though we can never be equipped to handle all of the potential challenges that may lead to a child’s contact with juvenile justice, we can make ourselves aware of various risk factors so that we can assist in coordinating appropriate care. If we know what to look for, there’s a better chance to mobilize early support. Knowing specifically what to look for, though, has been difficult because we’ve lacked research synthesizing the characteristics and risk factors of incarcerated youth at the individual level. That has now changed.

I was fortunate to participate in a recent project that attempts to fill this information gap by identifying individual-level risk factors through a comprehensive review of literature published over the past 30 years. My colleagues and I identified several domains of individual risk associated with young people in the U.S. juvenile correctional system. Knowledge of these domains will provide a focus for researchers and practitioners that can help to more effectively prevent incarceration and/or rehabilitate incarcerated youth. The domains of risk include the following:

Mental Health

Youth in juvenile justice facilities have significant mental health issues. Some reports indicate 100 percent of youth offenders have conduct disorders. Symptoms of depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders also occur at high rates. Female offenders, on average, report mental health conditions more frequently, and specifically cite the symptoms of anxiety and depression.


Youth who demonstrate antisocial and cognitive disorganization personality traits are considered at risk. Evidence suggests that violent acts committed by youth are predictably related to a variety of personality features. Specifically, 75 percent of all sex offenders have high scores on antisocial and cognitive disorganization personality measures.


There are two specific areas of risk in this domain: self-esteem and perception of others. A significant relationship between low self-esteem and risk of incarceration exists, and youth who commit violent offenses have significantly lower self-esteem. Incarcerated youth often do not consider themselves skilled at anything; they describe themselves as “losers” and believe they are not as good as their peers. Both male and female offenders demonstrate this poor sense of self- worth.

Social-Emotional Behavior

Juvenile offenders typically display some form of acting out behavior prior to incarceration. This may include being physically aggressive, destructive to property, verbally aggressive, or otherwise engaging in acts that are more severe than simple misbehavior. The more a youth displays acting out behavior, the more likely he/she is to have contact with the court system. Difficulty with social skills is also an indicator of risk. Incarcerated youth often are less empathetic and struggle with impulse control and self-restraint.

Cognitive-Intellectual Development

Developmental assessments of incarcerated youth reveal a limited ability to anticipate consequences, make good decisions when afraid, seek help from adults, adapt to situations, and recognize alternative options. Additionally, difficulty with language development (i.e., the integration of words and sentences) and communicating both formally and informally are common characteristics of youth associated with the juvenile justice system.

Academic Achievement

Poor academic achievement is an identifiable indicator in the great majority of youth who are incarcerated. On average, juvenile offenders academically lag four years behind their peers. The demonstration of low achievement appears in both reading and math and on both standardized and school-based proximal (i.e., grade point average) measures. Students who become incarcerated typically have lower attendance rates and typically only complete the ninth grade. Compounding the issue is that incarcerated youth are 61 percent more likely to be identified with a disability and receive special education services.

History of Victimization/Substance Abuse

Incarcerated youth have previously experienced maltreatment at much higher rates than their peers who are not incarcerated. Data from the review indicated 1 in 4 incarcerated youth report a history of physical and/or sexual abuse, and the majority report traumatic events such as witnessing a violent attack on somebody else, thinking that they or someone close was going to be killed, or being threatened with a weapon. Finally, among youth who are incarcerated, more than 85 percent report using marijuana or other drugs, with substance use typically beginning between the ages of 10 and 16.

While the majority of risk factors fall outside the realm of the educational environment, the indicators are loosely interconnected, and as educators we are on the frontline of intervention on behalf of youth. We must be aware of these indicators because there may be opportunities for us to help steer students facing these challenges away from future behavior that can lead to the juvenile justice system.

For instance, we can be advocates for a wraparound philosophy of care. A wraparound philosophy of care is a planning process used to build constructive relationships and support networks among students, youth, and their families. Wraparound services are community based, culturally relevant, individualized, strength based, and family centered. Therefore, they address multiple environments in a youth’s life (e.g., across home, school, and community.