Legal Rights in Juvenile Detention

By George Khoury, Esq. on March 10, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Criminal law varies from state to state, but there are some commonalities across the board when it comes to juvenile justice and juvenile detention. Minors have civil rights just like adults, and to that end, the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment applies. Alternatively, very young minors may be found to lack the mental capacity to even be held criminally liable at all.

While minors generally have the same protections as adults, the juvenile justice system was designed to provide a few additional rights to juveniles in order reduce the likelihood of reoffending. However, each state runs their juvenile incarceration system differently, and will have policies regarding what privileges juvenile inmates may partake in, such as visitation, phone calls, or entertainment (such as watching TV).

Separation From Adult Inmates

Generally, if a minor is convicted or is being held pending trial, they will serve their time separate from adults. However, when a minor in custody turns 18, they may be transferred into an adult prison.

If a minor is tried as an adult and convicted, they may start their sentence in regular prison even if they are still a minor. However, before a minor is convicted as an adult, generally, states must house them separately from the adult inmate population.

Rehabilitation and Education

Although adult prisons are supposed to help rehabilitate inmates, issues of safety, staffing, funding, and overcrowding often force out helpful rehabilitation and education programs. While many of the same problems exist at juvenile detention centers, rehabilitation and education is seen as much more important for juvenile offenders, and failing to provide these may qualify as a civil rights violations. The ACLU and Department of Justice have been working to ensure that juvenile detention centers provide adequate education to juveniles in custody.


Everyone knows that jail can be dangerous, despite efforts to keep them safe. Clearly all attacks and injuries in a prison environment cannot be prevented, but detention facilities are obligated to take action to prevent and/or stop violence. If they are aware of a direct, credible threat, and fail to take action, it may amount to a civil rights violation.

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