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Studies Highlight Long Term Health Harms of Juvenile Justice System

The United States, with 1.3 million child and adolescents arrests each year, incarcerates a far greater proportion of youth than any other developed country. Two new studies in the February 2017 Pediatrics (both published online Jan. 23) suggest far-reaching health consequences for individuals and society.  For the study, “How Does Incarcerating Young People Affect Their Adult Health Outcomes?” researchers analyzed National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health data and found a dose-dependent link may exist between the amount of time the 14,344 participants, now adults, had spent in juvenile detention centers or jail during junior high or high school and future health problems. After adjusting for baseline health and socio-demographic factors, participants who were incarcerated less than a month were more likely to experience symptoms of depression as adults, and those incarcerated for 1 to 12 months had worse adult general health. The most dramatic effects were seen among participants detained for more than a year, whose odds of having depressive symptoms were more than four times as high and odds of having suicidal thoughts were twice as high. In addition, their odds of having physical or mental limitations that interfered with day-to-day functioning were three times higher than participants who hadn’t been incarcerated. A second study, “Disparities in HIV/AIDS Risk Behaviors After Youth Leave Detention: A 14-Year Longitudinal Study,” looked at 15 different risk factors tied to HIV/AIDS behaviors and found them to be significantly higher among 1,829 adults who’d been detained as juveniles in Chicago 14 years earlier, compared to the general population. A solicited commentary about the studies, “Changing Risk Trajectories and Health Outcomes for Vulnerable Adolescents: Reclaiming the Future,” calls for system-wide reform of the juvenile justice system to boost alternatives to youth incarceration and integrate risk-reduction and health care services into detention facilities.


The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 66,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults. For more information, visit and follow us on Twitter @AmerAcadPeds.

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