Juvenile Justice

The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) works to build awareness of and end the root causes of the Cradle to Prison Pipeline® crisis and youth incarceration. We champion effective youth violence prevention and intervention programs that help young people at every point of their involvement in the system — ranging from prevention efforts to divert youths from entering the system by creating alternatives to imprisonment, to supporting youths’ transition back into the community after a period of confinement.

The juvenile justice system resides near the end of the Cradle to Prison Pipeline crisis, where the intersection of poverty and race puts a Black boy born in 2001 at a one in three lifetime risk of going to prison, and a Latino boy a one in six lifetime risk of the same fate. Nonetheless, the juvenile justice system provides a critical opportunity to intervene and help get children on a more positive track toward college, productive work and successful adulthood.

CDF advocates for the humane and rehabilitative treatment of all children in the juvenile justice system, and ultimately, for systemic reform at the local, state and federal levels to ensure children receive fair and appropriate treatment that can prevent them from coming to the attention of the juvenile justice system in the first place.

Out-of-School Time Learning and Enrichment

The CDF Freedom Schools® program provides summer and after-school enrichment to help children become engaged with reading, increase their self-esteem and have a more positive attitude toward school and learning. In the summer of 2014 there were 202 Freedom Schools in 107 communities in 28 states and the District of Columbia. Fourteen of these sites were Freedom Schools operated in juvenile justice system settings in California, Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio and Texas. Juvenile corrections staff noted the benefits of the program for youths, who were able to express themselves and feel successful in the CDF Freedom Schools environment. Since 2010, CDF has continued to expand the number of CDF Freedom Schools programs in juvenile justice settings to give more students access to quality enrichment programs and a chance for positive rehabilitation. Read more about the impact the program has had in California, and learn more about the CDF Freedom Schools program.

Removing Children from Adult Jails and Prisons

On an average night in 2011, more than 60,000 children were held in a residential placement in the juvenile justice system. Additionally, over 1,500 children were held in adult prisons. In 1976, CDF released a report, Children in Adult Jails, which brought national attention to the large numbers of children subjected to the violation of their rights and well-being through incarceration with adults. While there has been progress in some states, there is much more work to do.

Youths are at the highest risk of being sexually abused while in confinement, and children housed in adult facilities are at an even higher risk of being victims of sexual abuse than children retained in juvenile facilities. In light of these disturbing findings, the National Prison Rape Elimination Act Commission recommended recently that juveniles be kept in separate facilities from adults. As the Department of Justice (DOJ) moved to implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), CDF joined other children’s and juvenile justice advocacy organizations in submitting comments urging the DOJ to follow the Commission’s recommendation and remove all children — whether they are in the juvenile justice or adult criminal justice system — from adult jails and prisons. Download the PREA youth comments report PDF. CDF worked with the Campaign for Youth Justice and other advocacy organizations to support the DOJ in keeping young people safe from sexual abuse and other harms resulting when housing children with adult inmates.

Securing Federal Resources for Juvenile Justice Reform

The federal government plays a vital role in protecting children in the juvenile justice system and helping to ensure they get the resources and attention they need to exit the Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ and enter the pipeline to college, work and a successful adulthood. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is specifically tasked with “strengthening the nation’s juvenile justice system and supporting prevention and early intervention programs that can make a difference for young people and their communities.”

In monitoring OJJDP and other federal juvenile justice efforts, CDF is engaged in the following

Reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) is Long Overdue

First passed in 1974, the JJDPA provides guidance and funding for states to make improvements to their juvenile justice systems and delinquency prevention programs, and requires states to address the over-incarceration of minority children. The JJDPA has been awaiting reauthorization since 2007 and CDF has worked with other advocacy groups to strengthen state requirements and spur greater juvenile justice reform efforts.

Federal Funding for Juvenile Justice Reform Must Be Protected

CDF works to ensure adequate federal funding for juvenile justice programming, which includes supporting local delinquency prevention programs as well as state-wide juvenile justice activities that comply with JJDPA standards. Unfortunately, juvenile justice programming funding was cut and decreased from $423.6 million in fiscal year 2010 to $276 million in 2011. The loss of federal juvenile justice funding often results in delinquency prevention programs closing their doors to at-risk youths, as federal grant opportunities decrease. President Obama’s 2012 budget proposed juvenile justice funding levels at $280 million. The President’s budget proposal would increase formula funding to states that comply with the JJDPA (View OJJDP's Formula Grants Program Summary), but cut the block grants that monitor state juvenile justice activities (See the Juvenile Accountability Block Grants Summary), as well as mentoring programs.

Partnering with the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition

The National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition (NJJDPC) is a group of over 50 children’s advocacy, social justice, law enforcement, corrections, and faith-based organizations working to ensure healthy families, build strong communities and improve public safety by promoting fair and effective policies, practices and programs for youths involved or at risk of becoming involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. CDF is a member of the NJJDPC and part of the JJDPA reauthorization working group, Act4JJ.

Recent Juvenile Justice Reports

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention frequently publishes reports on juvenile justice data collected and delinquency prevention programs that have been evaluated. Find the reports here.

Read the Campaign for Youth Justice’s recent report, State Trends, which details legislative victories from 2013 to 2014 in decreasing the number of children entering the adult criminal justice system. While the trend in the 1980s and 1990s was to transfer more children to the adult system, many states have made progress in turning that tide.

Marian Wright Edelman joined Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, to discuss the current state of juvenile re-entry and policies to meet the education, mental health, and substance abuse needs of the county’s juveniles, and further dismantle the Cradle to Prison Pipeline crisis. A report on juvenile re-entry was prepared for Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ office earlier this year by CDF-California’s Michelle Newell and Angelica Salazar. Download the full report — Juvenile Reentry in Los Angeles County: An Exploration of Strengths, Barriers and Policy Options — commissioned by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ office.

Data and Publications

Juvenile Justice Data and Publications

Child Poverty in America 2015 National FactSheet

Poverty data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on September 13, 2016 reveal child poverty declined last year to 14.5 million poor children, one million fewer than in 2014, but still higher than before the recession began in 2007.

September 13, 2016


State data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on September 17, 2015 reveal that child poverty in 2014 remains at record high levels in the states. Children are the poorest age group, and the poorest are children of color and those under age six.

October 28, 2015

Child Poverty in America 2014 State Fact Sheet

State data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on September 17, 2015 reveal that child poverty in 2014 remains at record high levels in the states. Children are the poorest age group, and the poorest are children of color and those under age six.

September 22, 2015

Child Poverty in America 2014 National Fact Sheet

Poverty data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on September 16, 2015 reveal that child poverty declined slightly in 2014, from 21.5 percent in 2013 to 21.1 percent in 2014. While child poverty rates declined for Hispanic, White and Asian children, Black children saw an increase and continue to have the highest child poverty rate. Despite some decreases child poverty among all children remains at shamefully high levels. One in five children – 15.5 million – were poor in 2014, and children remain the poorest age group in the country.

September 17, 2015

Ending Child Poverty Now

For the first time, this report shows that by investing an additional 2 percent of the federal budget into existing programs and policies that increase employment, make work pay, and ensure children’s basic needs are met, the nation could reduce child poverty by 60 percent and lift 6.6 million children out of poverty.

January 28, 2015

The State of America's Children 2014

The State of America's Children 2014

January 23, 2014

Dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline

The Children's Defense Fund's top priority is to dismantle America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline crisis that leaves a Black boy born in 2001 with a one-in-three chance of going to prison in his lifetime.

Massachusetts Cradle Coalition Presentation

Massachusetts Cradle Coalition Presentation

Massachusetts Cradle Coalition Education Taskforce

Massachusetts Cradle Coalition Education Taskforce

Massachusetts Cradle Coalition Alternatives to Zero Tolerance

Massachusetts Cradle Coalition Alternatives to Zero Tolerance

More Juvenile Justice Data

Child Watch® Columns

Child Watch® Columns:

  • 08/14/15
    Child Watch® Column: "The Unthinkable Lives of So Many Black Boys: Where Are the Caring Adults?!"
    What’s on the minds of many high school students these days—the start of a new school year, getting a driver’s license, worrying whether they’ll make the team, perhaps daydreaming about college and sweating over SAT exams? But that’s not what three Black male high school students told a Children’s Defense Fund audience this summer they’re thinking and worrying about.
  • 08/07/15
    Child Watch® Column: "Helping Black Boys Survive: What a Difference a Smile Makes"
    “If I tell you a smile could save a life, would you believe me? A smile can save a life. There was a gentleman, a young gentleman … named Kevin. Kevin was one of those children who did well in school and had great grades. People liked Kevin. Kevin was a handsome young man. But Kevin was a miserable young man. Kevin suffered from depression. Kevin decided that he was going to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and jump. … Kevin said, ‘If there’s one person who would smile at me or ask me if I was okay, I would not jump.’ Kevin jumped.”
  • 07/31/15
    Child Watch® Column: "Hanging on to Hope to Keep Black Men and Boys Alive"
    South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the world’s leading peace and justice advocates, has called Bryan Stevenson “America’s Nelson Mandela.” He has gotten innocent men off death row, successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court multiple times, including to ban “death sentences” — capital punishment and life imprisonment without parole for offenses committed by juveniles. In June this man of great moral clarity and brilliance spoke about “How to Keep Black Boys Alive” to 2,000 college-age Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® servant leaders at CDF-Haley Farm. He focused on how we can break up the Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ that feeds 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 into America’s morally indefensible and unjust mass incarceration system.
  • 04/03/15
    Child Watch® Column:
    "Let's Give Child Hunger a Summer Vacation"
    Many children and families eagerly look forward to the end of the school year and the carefree days of summer, playing outside in the warm sun, splashing and swimming in pools and at beaches, and gathering with family and friends for backyard barbeques. But for more than 17 million children the end of school can be the end of certainty about where and when their next meal will come. While 21.7 million children received free or reduced price lunches during the 2013-2014 school year, only 2.6 million children-12.2 percent-participated in the Summer Food Service Program. This huge participation gap suggests that nearly 9 out of 10 of the children who benefit from free or reduced price lunches during the school year may not be receiving the nourishment necessary for proper physical, cognitive, and social development during the long summer months. Hunger has no vacation.
  • 03/27/15
    Child Watch® Column:
    "Time for Justice for Children in New York"
    By Marian Wright Edelman and Melanie Hartzog
    Under New York’s juvenile justice system a child as young as seven can be arrested for a crime, and a 16-year-old is automatically charged as an adult.

Past Child Watch® Columns about Juvenile Justice