- In the early days of the United States, detention of juveniles was rare. Authorities preferred to allow parents to deal with the delinquent behavior of their children. But as the urbanization of America continued and the traditional ability of parents to monitor their offspring eroded, government became less tolerant of childhood misbehavior. Juveniles were often imprisoned with adult offenders, a practice that backfired, resulting in juvenile offenders becoming better schooled in criminal behavior through the tutelage of their incarcerated peers.
- The largest urban area in the U.S., New York City, began incarcerating juveniles with adults after the opening of the New York State Penitentiary in 1797. But the need to move juveniles away from the adult penal system soon became apparent. "The New York Society for the Prevention of Pauperism began to lobby intensively for a separate juvenile justice institution modeled on the prison system. Their efforts led the New York State Assembly to approve construction of the House of Refuge for delinquent children in 1824," writes the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice.
- By the 1840s, 53 such houses for juvenile detention had been constructed around the country. But a deserved reputation for overcrowding, abuse, and unsanitary conditions haunted these houses, leading to the development of a new approach--training schools. Massachusetts opened the first state-sponsored training school for boys in 1847 and for girls in 1856, placing an emphasis on schooling and vocational training as deterrents to prolonged anti-social behavior. These schools became the model for the juvenile detention centers of today.
- Cook County, Illinois, established the first juvenile court system in 1899, an approach that all but two states adopted by 1925. "The doctrine parens patriae (the State as Parent) served as the foundation for the newly established right for the state to intervene and to provide protection for children whose parents did not provide adequate care or supervision," states the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Public perception over the past several decades of a lack of effectiveness within the juvenile system has led to the adoption of stricter detention terms for juveniles, increasing the prevalence of juvenile centers.
- In an effort to save tax dollars, states are increasingly outsourcing the operation of juvenile detention centers to private contractors. Companies like the Sarasota-based Correctional Services Corporation operate both adult and juvenile detention centers nationwide. Additionally, both states and private contractors are employing juvenile detention options based around military-style "boot camps." These are often short-term alternatives to incarceration, designed to decrease the number of youths sentenced to more traditional juvenile detention centers.