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Children's Rights in the Juvenile Justice System

The Special Litigation Section works to protect the rights of children in all stages of the juvenile justice system, from contact with law enforcement to delinquency proceedings to confinement in youth detention and commitment facilities run by, or on behalf of, state or local governments. If we find that any part of a state or local juvenile justice system systematically deprives children of their rights, we can act.


Our work includes many kinds of activities. We speak with families, children, and other interested community members or organizations. We review and investigate allegations of systemic violations of federal law. We negotiate settlements to address violations of law we have identified. We file lawsuits in federal court when necessary and enforce court orders. We monitor compliance during efforts to implement reform. We participate in cases brought by private parties. We work closely with nationally renowned experts to provide training and technical assistance.

Description of the Laws We Use to Protect Children in the Juvenile Justice System

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, (34 U.S.C. § 12601), allows us to investigate potential violations of children’s rights throughout every stage of the juvenile justice system and bring lawsuits to enforce those rights. Under this law, we can determine whether children’s civil rights are being violated during arrests, while facing delinquency charges in juvenile courts, while completing community diversion programs, while being monitored by probation services, and while being detained or completing sentences in detention and commitment facilities. We also use the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997a, to review conditions and practices within youth detention and commitment facilities. Finally, we use our authority under 28 U.S.C. § 517 to file statements of interest in private litigation when needed to clarify children’s rights in the juvenile justice system.

Under both of these laws, we enforce the rights that children have under the Constitution.  We can also use these laws to enforce other rights that children have in the juvenile justice system, including their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12132 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400.

We have no authority to assist with individual claims, even if the evidence of harm to an individual is serious. We also cannot correct a problem in a federal facility or address actions by federal officials. We likewise cannot assist in adult criminal cases or with claims that a child has been wrongly adjudicated. But we can act if we identify a pattern or practice that causes harm to children. If we find systemic problems, we send the state or local government a letter that describes the problems and explains what steps it must take to fix them. We will try to reach an agreement with the state or local government to fix the problems. If we cannot agree, we may file a lawsuit in federal court.

Results of Our Work to Protect Children in the Juvenile Justice System

Our work addresses a wide variety of issues, including policing, access to counsel, fair court procedures, equal treatment for children regardless of race or ethnicity, medical care, mental health care, special education, use of isolation, and protection from physical and sexual abuse.

Using Section 12601, we can obtain relief to reform law enforcement agencies, school districts, juvenile courts, and probation services. For example, in Shelby County, Tennessee, we negotiated a comprehensive agreement addressing inadequate access to counsel and the over-representation of Black children at the local juvenile court. That agreement resulted in objective detention-assessment tools; the establishment of a well-staffed, well-resourced youth defender office; timely notice of charges to children in delinquency cases; and attorney representation during probation conferences.

In St. Louis County, Missouri, we obtained a comprehensive agreement addressing inadequate access to counsel, improper plea and probable cause hearings, and the over-representation of Black children. That agreement resulted in doubling the number of youth defenders to represent children and hiring a statistician to regularly collect and analyze data on racial disparities to inform the court’s decision-making.

In Lauderdale County, Mississippi, our work led to two settlement agreements to reform policing and probation practices, resulting in no more school-based arrests for behavior that should be addressed by the school disciplinary code and a prohibition on probation officers recommending incarceration unless the probation violation itself is a detainable offense and all other alternatives have been exhausted.

To clarify the scope of children’s rights in the juvenile justice system, we have filed statements of interest and amicus briefs in private litigation on a range of issues. For example, we opposed practices that make it too easy for children to waive the right to counsel; cautioned that lack of funding and other structural limitations could result in the constructive denial of counsel; urged a state court to consider imposing workload controls and independent monitoring to address systemic lack of access to counsel; and argued for the availability of prospective, pretrial Sixth Amendment relief.

Using Section 12601 and CRIPA, we also obtain relief to reform youth detention and commitment facilities. In South Carolina, we entered a comprehensive agreement covering its only long-term commitment facility that addresses keeping children safe from physical abuse by staff and other children, conducting effective investigations, limiting the use of isolation, and effectively managing children’s behavior. We also have a comprehensive agreement covering a local youth detention center in Leflore County, Mississippi that protects children from harm, including eliminating disciplinary isolation, limiting the use of force and restraints, and providing effective suicide prevention and mental health and medical care. In Puerto Rico, we have enforced a consent decree that covers conditions at both Commonwealth juvenile correctional facilities. The reforms focus on protecting children from physical and sexual abuse, ensuring adequate education, and providing adequate medical and mental health care. Previously, we had similar agreements covering seven facilities in Ohio, four facilities in New York, and fourteen facilities in Los Angeles County, California.

We have also filed statements of interest focused on conditions in youth detention and commitment facilities. We have challenged the use of isolation for prolonged periods and as punishment for misbehavior, the exposure of children to harsh conditions while in isolation, the failure to provide special education services to children in isolation and in adult facilities, and the unlawful practice of placing children with disabilities in isolation due to behaviors related to their disabilities.

The Section's work helps to ensure that children who encounter the juvenile justice system receive access to counsel, fair treatment, adequate medical and mental health care, continued education, effective programming to teach new skills to manage their emotions and behavior, and protection from harm.

Our Work with Others in the Federal Government on Behalf of Children in the Juvenile Justice System

We work closely with other parts of the Justice Department and other federal agencies that regulate, fund, and provide technical assistance to state and local governments. We work with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the National Institute of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons, the United States Department of Education, and the United States Department of Health and Human Services

Community Phone Numbers and Email Boxes

The Special Litigation Section has established toll free phone numbers and email boxes to receive information from the community about the following cases and matters:

Broad River Road Complex (South Carolina): (844) 380-6166 or by email at:

Manson Youth Institution (Connecticut): (833) 223-1565 or by email at:

Texas Juvenile Justice Department: (866) 432-0438 or by email at:

Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice: (888) 392-8241 or by email at:

For further information, follow the links below:

Updated June 11, 2024