Detention of Juveniles in Alaska: Preliminary Report

N.E. Schafer and Richard W. Curtis

Schafer, N. E. and Curtis, Richard W. (Spring 1995). "Detention of Juveniles in Alaska: Preliminary Report." Alaska Justice Forum 12(1): 1, 3-7. Detention data collected during Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act compliance monitoring is examined to describe juvenile detentions in Alaska for the five years from 1989 to 1993. Reason for and frequency of detention and characteristics of detainees, including race and sex, are discussed. Particular attention is given to repeat offenders, defined as individuals detained six or more times during the five-year period.


In a previous article ("Juvenile Detention in Alaska, 1993", Fall 1994) we examined 1993 detention data collected under the auspices of the Division of Family and Youth Services. In that article we paid particular attention to the utilization of detention in Alaska, and we found that length of detention varied among racial and ethnic groups and that length of detention was longer for probation violation events than for most other charges.

For this article we make use of five years of detention data. Although 1989 information is less than complete, our analysis uses 1989 as the base year. Data for the remaining years are considerably more reliable. They include every instance of detention where the juvenile was held for more than 45 minutes.

The information includes: the date and time of admission; the date and time of release; the juvenile's date of birth, sex and race; and the reason for the detention. This information was entered each time a youth was detained in a juvenile detention or holdover facility or held formally in an adult jail or lockup. (Juveniles who were booked and released from adult facilities were not included in the data set.)

The primary data collected were detention events, not individuals. Because of internal transfers from facility to facility within the overall system, one incident requiring detention may result in multiple detention events being included in the data set.

Reasons for Detention

The reasons for the detention events are of particular interest. We have categorized reason for detention (charge) for ease of comparison. Some of these categories are conventional (e.g., crimes against person, property crimes, etc.) and some less so. We were particularly interested in status offenses and in detentions for protective custody. (Alaska statutes require police to take inebriates into custody for their own protection.)

The number and per cent of detention events associated with the different charge categories are displayed in Table 1. Two categories accounted for the most detentions in every year but 1989: property offenses and probation violations. Together these two reasons for detention account for 43.1 per cent of all detentions in the data set.

Table 1. Reason for Detention of Juveniles in Alaska (Charges) by Year, 1989-1993

Detentions for property offenses, although they have constituted a substantial portion of all detentions since 1990, exceeding probation violations in 1990 and 1993, do not show a pattern. The numbers dropped in 1991 and 1992 from 322 events in 1990 and then jumped to 367 in 1993.

The table suggests that there has been a steady increase in detentions for crimes against persons. Within this category, murder accounted for very few instances of detention, although there was an increase in this crime from one in 1990 to three in 1991, five in 1992 and seven in 1993, for a total of 16 in all five years. There was only one detention for manslaughter - in 1991. The 682 instances of detention for crimes against persons included 62 charges of sexual assault - less than 10 per cent of the total. The majority of these charges for crimes against persons involved assault (N=565), which showed an almost 100 per cent increase between 1990 and 1993. In 1990, this charge was associated with 6.9 per cent of all reasons for detention; in 1993, these events constituted 13.2 per cent of all detention events.

Status offenses constituted a negligent proportion of the total number of detentions in the combined data set, and in each year after 1989 constituted a decreasing proportion of the total, reflecting the impact of concerted efforts by the state to reduce detentions on these charges. Detentions for reasons of protective custody did not show a pattern, but they constituted fewer detention reasons than we had predicted.

Data on Individuals

Because we wished to look at information about individuals, not just detention events, we combined personal identifiers included in the data with date of birth, thus reconfiguring the event data as individual data. Since combining data from five years into a single data set resulted in some missing data, totals may vary according to the variables under discussion. During the five years a total of 6931 detentions were experienced by 3393 Alaska juveniles - more than two events per person. Clearly, there were a number of recidivists in our data; this group is of particular interest and will be examined in detail, particularly because of the possibility of several records based on a single charge (transfers).

Our descriptions of the individuals involved in the detention events begin with Table 2, which provides demographic data by year of detention for individuals. We should note that the recording of demographic data improved over the five years. Gender was omitted from about one-third of the records in 1989 and race was omitted from approximately two-thirds. (The age data are accurate for all years, since date of birth determined entry into the data set for each year.) However, we were able to extract gender and race data for individuals if the individual appeared more than once in the data set, considerably reducing the missing information.

Table 2. Demographic Information for Individuals by Year

Because each year in the table was computed as a separate file, the number of individuals detained in each separate year is accurate, but one cannot add the numbers for each year into a total since some juveniles appear from year to year. There are, therefore, fewer individuals in the five-year data than annual addition would provide. We computed the totals column separately, counting individual juveniles in the combined data set only once, regardless of when or how often each appeared in the five-year period.

The age data, which contain very little missing information, show that 17-year-olds constituted the largest proportion of detainees in every year, with 16-year-olds consistently constituting the second-largest proportion.

For each year after 1989, two to three males were detained for each female detained. These proportions are not particularly unusual when compared with other kinds of juvenile data elsewhere, though national arrest data suggest proportions closer to four to one for youth and eight or nine to one for adults.

The data on race in Table 2 show that whites and Alaska Natives form the bulk of all juveniles detained every year. Alaska Natives appear to be overrepresented among detained youth for the two years (1992 and 1993) for which race data are nearly complete. They constituted less than 20 per cent of the combined white/Native population of 10 to 19-year-olds in the total state population (Alaska Department of Labor, Alaska Population Overview, 1991), but they were more than 30 per cent of all detainees in 1992 and 28.6 per cent of all detainees in 1993. White youth were less than 50 per cent of detainees in both years.

Frequency of Detention

For each separate year, the average number of detentions per juvenile was 1.5 to 1.7. For the total data set, which carried individuals from year to year, the average was closer to two (1.91 detentions per person). When we examined the full data set we found that 62.5 per cent of the individuals appeared only once in 5 years (N=2121). This does not, of course, indicate that these 2000-plus juveniles offended only once. Those whose last detention of many was in 1989 would be included in this figure, as would those whose first of many occurred in 1993. Of the remaining juveniles, 563 appeared twice in the data set; 284, three times; 182, four times; 99, five times; and 144, six or more times. The individual record for frequency of detention during the five years was 27 times.

Table 3 presents data on detention frequency by the demographic characteristics of age, race, and gender. Proportionately more African American youth appeared in our data set more than once (47.5%) than any other race category, followed by Alaska Natives (46.9%). The frequency with which males and females appeared in the data set was proportionally similar for each frequency category, with males slightly less likely to appear only once and slightly less likely than females to appear six or more times. For both race and gender, the amount of missing data may affect these proportions, though we can probably assume that the missing race and gender data would approximate the distribution of known race and gender.

Table 3. Detention Frequency of Individuals by Demographic Characteristic

Repeat Offenders

Because so many youth appear in the data multiple times, we have looked more closely at the 144 juveniles who appeared in the data set six or more times, a group we have defined as our repeat offenders. In this group, 38.2 per cent were detained 6 times (N=55); 20.1 percent, 7 times (N=29); and 21.5 percent, 8 times (N=31). Twelve juveniles in the full data set experienced 9 detentions; four juveniles, 10 detentions; three juveniles, 11 detentions; and four, 12 detentions. Each of the remaining six juveniles experienced a different number of detentions over the period: 13, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 27 (Table 4). Together these 144 youth accounted for 1,112 detentions.

The repeat offenders differ from the full sample in the distribution of both race and gender. Females accounted for 31.3 per cent of the subsample, compared with 21.7 per cent of the total sample. Alaska Natives are the largest portion of the repeat offender subsample. They are 44.4 per cent of the total (N=64), while whites are 40.3 per cent (N=58) and blacks are 9.0 per cent (N=13). This differs greatly from the proportion of Alaska Natives in the full sample (21.6% compared to 37.1% for whites) and is greatly disproportionate to their appearance in the general population of Alaska youth. The disparities raise some questions about the reasons for detention and the degree to which there may be bias in the system.

Table 4. Repeat Offenders

We used an SPSS random sample generator program to identify a subsample of these repeat offenders for more careful study. The fifteen offenders are profiled in Table 5. If our subsample of repeat offenders is a mirror, Alaska seems to have relatively few seriously criminal youth whose repeated detentions are tied to repeated criminal acts.

Case #13 was one of these relatively few. He was a white male aged 14 who was detained 10 times; three of these detentions were for probation violations. His first appearance was for burglary (which may have been changed to theft when transferred on the same day to Anchorage from Kenai). He was detained five times for assault, and once for criminal mischief. He may have violated probation more times than the data indicate, since where a criminal charge was listed as a reason for violation, the event was entered in our data under the more serious charge.

Considerably more cases in this subsample suggest that many instances of detention result from a single act, that many are "paperwork" detentions tied to movement across the system or even within the facility, and that some juveniles are detained frequently and ultimately institutionalized for relatively minor but frequent misbehavior. Consider the history of Case #14, a 12-year-old female African American who first appeared in our data set in August 1990 for violation of probation. She continued to violate her probation and was detained three more times on this charge. We assume that she was ultimately institutionalized for her behavior: one year after her fourth probation violation she was placed in detention for reasons of program discipline. (It is not uncommon for youths in treatment to be placed in detention for disciplinary reasons. The youth centers all contain separate detention/treatment areas, and while treatment has no high-custody holding area, the detention area does.) At 15 she was detained on a charge of minor consuming alcohol (a status offense under JJDP guidelines) and then experienced two more detentions for violating the conditions of probation - six detentions for probation violation out of a total of eight.

Our sample of repeat offenders raises two important areas for further examination: race/gender differentials and the large proportion of probation violations recorded as the reason for the detention event - 25 per cent of all detention events. We begin with an exploration of probation violators. We reiterate that engaging in criminal behavior is grounds for a probation violation but may or may not be included in the information we compiled. Where criminal charges were mentioned along with a probation violation, we entered the most serious criminal charge as the reason for detention. However, although the record may indicate only a probation violation, this may subsume another illegal act.

The repeat offender subsample contains a large proportion of probation violators. Seven of the fifteen in the subsample appeared in our data for the first time for a violation of probation; only three of this subsample had no detentions for probation violations. The remainder had one to six detentions for this reason (two had six, one had five, two had four, etc.). Since the full sample contained a substantial number of probation violators, we examined all probation violators as another subsample. In Table 6 we show the number of probation violations for each of the 950 juveniles detained at least once for a probation violation by gender and by race. Most probation violators (62.5%) were detained only once for this reason, but 180 were detained twice for reasons of violating probation and 176 were detained three or more times. One juvenile achieved 12 detentions for violating probation.

The race and gender data in this table are more complete than those in some earlier tables. Gender information is missing in only 3.9 per cent of this subsample. There was little difference between the proportions of males and females who were detained once for violations of probation.

We also examined the charge for which the 950 probation violators first appeared in our data and found that more than half appeared in the five-year data set for the first time on a charge of probation violation (56.2%). The next largest group appeared initially for property offenses (20.2%). As noted above, our early data "catches" 17-year-olds who are finishing their histories of delinquency and may also constitute a substantial portion of those whose initial appearance in our data was for a probation violation.

Table 6. Probation Violators

Race and Gender

Using detention event data from all five years, we compared reason for detention by frequency of detention by race in Table 7. We have examined whites and Alaska Natives specifically because they are the largest racial categories and have collapsed other races and combined them with data events where race is missing. This allows us to focus on the differences between white and Alaska Native detention events. Further, we have consolidated frequency into three categories: one appearance in the five-year data set; two to six appearances; and six or more appearances. Finally, we have separated the data by gender in order to determine whether gender compounds the differentials.

Although for a large portion of juveniles who appeared only once in the data race was not recorded, as the number of detentions for each individual increased, our ability to derive this data item from other recorded events also increased. We assigned the appropriate race to those events where it was not recorded. Among males detained only once, 18.6 per cent were missing and 15.1 per cent were identified as other races. Among those detained two to six times, 9.0 per cent were missing and 18.5 per cent were identified as other races; and among the very frequent category, less than four per cent of the data was missing.

For males, as frequency of detention occurs, there is a steady increase in the proportion of Alaska Natives in the data. For those detained six or more times, the difference is greater not only proportionally but also numerically. The reasons for the detentions vary among frequency categories.

For whites who appear only once in the data set, the most likely reason for detention was a property offense charge (24.8% of white one-time males), followed by a crime against persons (16.5%). Natives who appear only once were most likely to be detained for reasons of protective custody. Probation violations are the most likely reason for detention for both white and Native males in both other frequency categories.

Regardless of frequency category, Alaska Native males are more likely than white males to be detained for protective custody purposes. This difference is particularly pronounced among those who appear in the data only once. Twenty per cent of Alaska Native males detained once were detained for protective custody reasons, compared to 2.4 per cent of whites. It is the only detention reason where the numeric difference holds over all three frequency categories.

Alaska statutes allow (indeed, require) police to take inebriates into custody for their own protection. Detention is only one option for inebriated juveniles, but other options are more likely to be available only in urban areas. For this article we are unable to examine some of the questions which might be related to protective custody detentions (rural vs. urban, season, etc.), but we note that many rural areas have largely Native populations and fewer sleep-off options.

Among females, protective custody is the primary reason for detention for Alaska Natives detained once and for those detained two to six times. It is the second most likely reason for detention for those detained six or more times. The racial distribution of total detention events differs considerably for females than for males. While Alaska Natives account for 26.5 per cent of all male detentions (1184 of 4460 events), Alaska Native females account for 44.3 per cent of all female detentions (670 of 1514 events). There are more Natives than whites in the two to six detentions category, as well as the six or more detentions category. There are numerically more protective custody events among Alaska Native females than among Alaska Native males.

Other research performed elsewhere has found that gender is a major determinant in the decision to detain, with females considerably more likely to be detained for status offenses than males. It is doubtful that young Native women are more likely than young Native men to become inebriated, but it is possible that they are viewed by system personnel as more in need of protection.


This preliminary analysis pinpoints areas for future research on detention by race and gender. Because record-keeping has improved, the data may be used to examine annual changes in detention policies, but the weaknesses of the 1989 and 1990 data make definitive analysis of trends impossible at this point.

Our primary purpose was to describe the detention data. The proportion of detentions for probation violations led us to examine repeat detainees, and the proportion of minorities among these repeaters led us to an initial examination of race, gender and detention frequency.

Although our findings suggest important differences in the reasons for detaining female Native youth, different kinds of analysis as well as elimination of the less satisfactory data years may erase some of these differentials. We suggest, however, that researchers studying racial disparities control for gender to see if the kinds of differences we have found appear elsewhere.

Our data suggest that "detention recidivists" are frequently involved in fairly minor deviant behaviors and that alternative placements for probation violators might lessen the cost of detention and decrease institutional crowding.

N.E. Schafer is a professor at the Justice Center. Richard W. Curtis is a Justice Center research associate.