With two million minors arrested every year, researchers and legal experts are urging President Barack Obama to find alternatives to jail, in hopes of breaking a cycle of crime that ensnares many American youths.
"We have the tools now, there is no excuse for the new administration not to use them," Center for Children's Law and Policy director Mark Soler told AFP during a conference on the links between juvenile justice and poverty.
There are some 31 million 15 to 18 year olds in the United States, and close to 93,000 of them are behind bars, serving time in nearly 600 private and public detention centers across the United States.
Most jailed juveniles come from poor backgrounds; blacks are five times more likely to be imprisoned than whites.
"Even if disadvantaged neighborhoods create a higher risk (of incarceration), we produce high-risk young people because we lock them up," said criminologist David Altschuler, from John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
"This is a mainstream (problem) in our society: they don't want to deal with those young people, so they leave them to the law enforcement community. That is not the the law enforcement's role," Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman told AFP.
While one in five prosecuted minors is sent to jail, Edelman said "detention fits only a minority; a very small number are dangerous.
"There are many who can stay in their community, receive supervision, perhaps go to special school ..."
Altschuler said imprisonment often created a revolving door for crime that neither youths already in trouble at school and their families are able to stop.
"This is a vicious circle, none of them are prepared to get out," he said.
Minors who fall afoul of the law and stop going to school have a hard time finding a steady job and are more prone to alcoholism and mental disorders on average than their peers.
The negative trend is even worse in the case of some 200,000 minors who are put through the traditional justice system.
In 13 US states, youths 17 and older are treated like adults, and in many other states prosecutors can send minors awaiting trial to adult prisons or transfer them to adult courts.
Neelum Arya, executive director of the youth advocacy group Campaign for Youth Justice, told the conference that each day 2,000 minors are placed in adult jails across the country, and that the 200,000 youths prosecuted are "nine times more likely to be convicted as an adult when tried in the adult system" and have a higher recidivism rate.
In view of what the Campaign calls these "horribles statistics," youth crime experts have over the past 15 years cobbled together hundreds of alternative programs to prison, some of which have already proven their worth.
One measure calls for building new prison facilitees better adapted to handle juvenile offenders.
Meanwhile, tour US senators last week proposed a bill to increase federal subsidies for crime prevention and treatment targeting juvenile offenders.