Youth in The Justice System

Nearly 430,000 children were arrested in 2020, and juvenile courts across the country hear nearly 800,000 cases each year. These young people may be interrogated by police without an attorney, enter guilty pleas without fully appreciating the consequences of doing so, or give up other important trial rights in violation of the Constitution. They may be appear in court unrepresented or find themselves burdened by records that cause long-term obstacles as they try to continue their education or work in their communities.

Racism pervades the justice system, leading to the arrest, prosecution, adjudication and incarceration of disproportionately greater numbers of youth of color than white youth, even while youth offending patterns are relatively similar. Moreover, fines and fees imposed on youth create an unfair system of “justice by income,” where children in poverty face an increased risk of incarceration, while more affluent youth receive effective community-based treatment. Justice should not be based on race, where a child lives, or the family’s income.

Youth deserve legal protections and experienced lawyers to challenge unconstitutional laws, oppose unfair policies or practices, and hold systems accountable when they harm youth and their families.

Images: © Richard Ross,

The United States is the only country that sentences children to die in prison. Hundreds of individuals are currently serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed as youth.

What We Do

Juvenile Law Center stands with young people to hold systems accountable. We push for change through impact litigation, appellate advocacy, amicus (friend of the court) briefs, policy reform, professional training and education, and strategic communications.

We advocate for constitutional rights to due process and access to counsel. We fight for racial and economic justice for youth and their families.

Our advocacy work also ensures that laws, policies, and practices are informed by research, consistent with children’s developmental needs, and reflective of human rights values.

Images: © Richard Ross,

Our Work

Every state charges juvenile justice costs, fees, fines, or restitution. Youth who can’t afford to pay for their freedom often face serious consequences, including incarceration, extended probation, or denial of treatment—they are unfairly penalized for being poor and pulled deeper into the justice system. 

We studied each state’s policies on juvenile record confidentiality and expungement. Our findings show how the nation fails to protect youth from the harmful effects of juvenile records.

Hundreds of individuals nationwide are serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles.

In 2007, a frantic call from an alarmed parent prompted Juvenile Law Center to investigate irregularities in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County juvenile court. What we found was shocking.

How You Can Help

Your support means we can stay vigilant and respond whenever and wherever we are needed.