What's at Stake

After decades of punitive “tough-on-crime” responses to youth crime and misbehavior, there has been a perceptible shift in recent years surrounding juvenile justice issues in the United States. Policymakers are slowly returning to the first principles of juvenile justice by recognizing that young people are still developing and should be given opportunities for treatment, rehabilitation, and positive reinforcement. Through advocacy, legislation, and reallocation of resources, a majority of states have successfully expanded community alternatives to jail and prison and significantly reduced the number of children behind bars.

The ACLU is committed to challenging the criminalization and incarceration of young people—particularly youth from disenfranchised communities. We are promoting positive approaches to school discipline and seeking to dismantle the “school-to-prison pipeline.” We are working to change laws and policies so that states and local jurisdictions use youth jails and prisons sparingly and instead provide effective community-based services and supports to system-involved young people and their families. 

Ending excessive sentences and extreme punishments is of paramount importance to protect young people in the juvenile justice system. Together with national and state partners, we are committed to ending juvenile life without parole sentences so that no young person is sentenced to die in prison. We are also working to end the use of solitary confinement for all young people in juvenile facilities and in adult jails and prisons.

Current Issues

Youth Incarceration

Youth are still maturing and developing, so as a result society treats kids and adults differently in a wide array of contexts: Kids cannot drive, sit on juries, enter contracts, join the military, smoke, drink, marry, or hold political office. Yet in the criminal justice system, we often treat youth like adults.

School-to-Prison Pipeline

The ACLU is committed to challenging the "school-to-prison pipeline," a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out.


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