What is the Difference Between Adult and Juvenile Incarceration?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 02 February 2020
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The key difference between adult and juvenile incarceration is the focus on rehabilitation for underage offenders, as opposed to punishment for adult convicts. Facilities for juveniles are run very differently, and people in such jails and prisons have access to different kinds of services and support. Minors are not imprisoned with adults until after they reach the age of majority, and this isolation supports the mission of preventing future crimes and giving juveniles a second chance at successful social integration.

In most nations, people believe juvenile offenders need discipline and support to prevent a return to crime when they get out, while adult offenders may be considered beyond redemption. For adults, jail and prison are penal environments. Juvenile incarceration facilities share some qualities in common with adult prisons, but inmates have access to education, incentive programs, and more social services and support. Drug treatment in such facilities, for example, tends to be more readily available.


Inmates in a juvenile incarceration facility usually have a very tight schedule, set to impose discipline. Like adult inmates, they work around the facility on tasks like cleaning and maintenance and may also perform other tasks. Many nations require that juveniles receive an education behind bars, and people may have a set number of hours of class each day. They can pursue equivalency tests while in juvenile incarceration so they leave prison with a certificate allowing them to seek jobs requiring a high school diploma. Students may also be able to engage in correspondence courses with colleges, universities, and technical schools while they are incarcerated.

The rehabilitation aspect of juvenile incarceration facilities provides more opportunities. Inmates may be able to participate in a variety of programs, ranging from religious ministries to community service. These programs teach social responsibility and also provide inmates with tools they can use upon graduation. The ex-offender might be able to seek work in the outside world, for example, rather than feel pressured to return to crime.

In rare cases, the government may decide to try a juvenile as an adult, usually when the person is close to the age of majority and the crime is heinous. Handling offenders tried as adults after a conviction can be tricky, as it is not safe to house them with adult prisoners, but the government may not support a rehabilitation environment for such prisoners, on the grounds that the primary focus of incarceration for them is punishment, not redemption.


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