OBJECTIVE: To determine the hepatitis B vaccination status of juvenile offenders in a custodial setting, their perceived risk of hepatitis B infection, and factors influencing vaccine uptake. DESIGN: 130 males aged 14-17 years resident at the Melbourne Juvenile Justice Centre for at least one week between mid-January and mid-December 1996 were invited to participate; 90 (69%) completed a doctor-administered questionnaire, and blood for serological testing was obtained from 83 of these participants. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Whether hepatitis B vaccine had been offered; whether hepatitis B vaccine had been given; the presence of antibodies to hepatitis B and C; risk factors and self-perceived risk of hepatitis B. RESULTS: About a quarter of participants (22/83) had protective levels of antibody to hepatitis B surface antigen (anti-HBs). Forty (44%) participants reported having been offered hepatitis B vaccine; they were more likely to be vaccinated and have protective levels of anti-HBs. Perceived risk for bloodborne virus infection was low, although two-thirds of participants were at high risk of hepatitis B infection. On serological testing, 6.4% (5/78) were positive for antibody to hepatitis B core antigen (anti-HBc), and a further 2.6% (2) had equivocal antibody levels. Of the 71 who were negative for anti-HBc, 51 (71.8%) were negative for anti-HBs. CONCLUSIONS: The targeted hepatitis B vaccination program has not adequately protected this group at high lifetime risk of hepatitis B. Failure to deliver vaccine may reflect lack of contact with healthcare services, oversight in offering vaccine and reluctance of youth to participate in preventive healthcare measures, often through not seeing themselves to be at risk. Universal approaches to vaccination may be more successful in vaccinating this group.