Calls to Release Youth from Lockups Due to Virus Threat Grow Nationwide

A lawsuit filed today in Pennslyvania Supreme Court asks judges to release some youth in juvenile detention to protect them from the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: Richard Ross

With most free residents across the United States keeping at least six feet apart, feverishly washing their hands and avoiding any social groups, 43,000 young people in juvenile lockups and prisons are living in coronavirus petri dishes that have become “brewing reservoirs” of infection, according to inmates and juvenile justice experts.

Advocates in dozens of states from California to Louisiana and New York are calling for the immediate release of any young people now in custody who can safely be sent home, and in some parts of the country those releases have already begun.

In a petition filed today with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeking “extraordinary relief powers,” youthful offenders state they are sleeping in open dorms, with beds permanently secured to the floor just a few feet from each other. They have spotty access to protective gear and hand sanitizer, and are often cleaning without proper disinfectant supplies. When correctional staff become infected with COVID-19, court filings show, attempts to quarantine youth have been haphazard, with common areas and shared phones still rife for the spread of the virus.

“We have been instructed to practice social distancing but it’s impossible to stay 6 feet away from other people because of the tight quarters,” said a 17-year-old youth in custody identified in legal documents as A.O.

With the number of coronavirus deaths in the United States now projected to explode from the current 4,400 to as many as 240,000, prominent national advocacy groups want Pennsylvania’s highest court to release some young people from restrictive placements, including juvenile detention facilities, county jails and residential centers.

To date, thousands of adults have already been released or will soon be released from jails and prisons in places from Los Angeles County to Cuyahoga County, Ohio. A smaller number of juvenile offenders have also been released or are being considered for release in several regions, among them the California counties of Santa Clara and San Francisco; Cook County, Ill., and a facility in Maine.

The emergency order filed by the Juvenile Law Center, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project and the law firm DLA Piper, calls for those actions to be stepped up in Pennsylvania, where a reported 5,805 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, with 74 deaths recorded so far. The order being sought would apply to all Pennsylvania juveniles in custody, as well as those prosecuted as adults. The petition asks the court to appoint a special master to compel judges to immediately plan for the release of medically vulnerable youth, and those who do not pose a serious public safety risk.

“We are in dire circumstances,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center. “We know that any congregate living setting, whether it’s a prison or a group home, whether we call them petri dishes or incubators, we know these are places that will foster rather than impede the growth of the virus and infection.”

Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center

Levick’s organization is calling for young people to be released from lockups and moved back to the homes of their families, guardians or loved ones, avoiding any types of group facilities.  

The emergency request from the Juvenile Law Center and its partners follows a similar appeal by the American Civil Liberties Union to the Pennsylvania high court on Monday, calling for a reduction in the state’s adult jail population

 “Whatever inertia people have, whatever lack of urgency they’re feeling, whatever hesitation or paralysis because of the very strange situation we find ourselves in — we need to adapt to the circumstances we find ourselves in and look out for those who can’t look out for themselves right now,” Levick said. “We need to make sure every child is protected.”

As if to underscore the stakes, the Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday that a county probation officer employed at a Sylmar juvenile hall tested positive for the coronavirus, resulting in 21 youth inmates being quarantined.

Facing such outbreaks, thousands of adult inmates across the country have been ordered freed in response to fears over coronavirus spread. Last week, Los Angeles County released 1,700 adults from jail. And on Tuesday, California officials announced that the state’s prison system would release 3,500 people serving time for nonviolent crimes and who had fewer than 60 days left on their sentences, as a result of  “extraordinary and unprecedented protective measures.” 

The state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has said 25 prison employees and eight incarcerated inmates have so far tested positive for COVID-19, at three facilities in Southern California. Those expected to be released did not include teens in the state’s juvenile justice system, though California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has halted the intake of all new offenders. 

Some jurisdictions may be slower to act on any abrupt changes to youth in custody. In a number of locations, local court systems, law enforcement agencies and probation departments are reviewing cases one-by-one, in an effort to balance the risk to public safety that a release might present, with the health risks of keeping a young person locked up. 

Advocates want these efforts stepped up and decided imminently, particularly for low safety risk populations, including non-violent offenders, the medically vulnerable, those close to scheduled release dates, and young people locked up for probation violations and bench warrants. 

In an emailed statement, the Chief Probation Officers of California described how county workers supervise “high risk” and “high needs” youth released due to the global pandemic. As with others being supervised in the community, probation officers conduct in-person, home visits, keeping a distance of 6 feet away.

Coronavirus infections in adult facilities are driving much of the calls for change in the care and custody of juveniles. Conditions have worsened at adult prisons and jails such as Riker’s Island in New York — where COVID-19 is spreading at a 3.6 percent infection rate, far higher than the rate in the general population.

In New York state – which has become ground central for the spread of coronavirus, claiming 400 residents in the last week alone – the Legal Aid Society has filed a lawsuit seeking freedom for 22 young people in the custody of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services. That suit comes as both youth and staff have tested positive for coronavirus at detention facilities.

“If you were to design a place that would magnify the dangers of coronavirus, you could actually hardly do better than youth correctional facilities in the United States of America,” said Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University at a Tuesday press conference. The former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Probation joined other advocates highlighting the public health risks of young people in detention. 

So far,  advocacy groups in 33 states have called on local leaders to quickly examine fundamentals of the juvenile justice system, including the use of lock up for youth who are detained while waiting to have their cases heard in court, and those locked up after sentencing.  The Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, a group of current and former juvenile justice officials promoting a reduction in youth incarceration, has released a similar set of recommendations, including providing emergency funding to community-based organizations to safely divert more young people from incarceration and ensuring that every released youth has a caregiver with adequate support, including health care.

Where in the country young people are locked up may make all the difference as to whether they will be considered for release. While California officials are likely to be relatively sympathetic and responsive, some states will be far less responsive to advocates’ concerns. 

Gina Womack, executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, said the coronavirus pandemic is reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina, when many youth remained in New Orleans detention facilities without food for days, standing in flood water, as the rest of the city evacuated. Womack’s organization sent a petition last week to Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) and to parish officials statewide asking them to release some youth from detention and to prevent young people from being admitted. But to date, she said, those pleas have yielded little response. 

“It seems like there’s really no plan in place of the outbreak in the youth facilities, and it seems as if Katrina never happened,” Womack said Tuesday. 

The U.S. now has more than 200,000 cases of coronavirus infection, with 4,473 reported deaths. 

And although the virus is more likely to claim the lives of adults than children, there are fears that youth in detention present a special risk. According to a study in Pediatrics, incarcerated youth are far more likely than their peers outside of confinement to have poor health. Due to trauma histories and impoverished childhoods, many don’t see health providers frequently enough, or have had poor continuity of health care while moving in and out of facilities and the foster care system. 

Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer for the New York City jail system during the outbreak of the H1N1 virus, said that juvenile detention centers “are brewing reservoirs of coronavirus infection.” And when outbreaks occur at these facilities, youth may not be able to receive adequate care. 

“We can’t think or be confident that we will find sick people in these places,” Venters told reporters Tuesday. “The way that these detention facilities are created and administered from a security standpoint means that there are often people who are getting sick outside of direct vision, where we don’t see them if they’re in a cell or if they’re in the corner of a dorm.”

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin at a press conference on Tuesday.

When concerns about the inability of youth in probation department-run detention facilities to practice social distancing arose recently in Los Angeles County, public health officials had to step in to conduct inspections.

In some parts of the country, even prosecutors are backing efforts to send more incarcerated young people home. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said his city has reduced the number of youth in juvenile detention by half during the past month alone in response to the global pandemic. 

Boudin – a known outlier among prosecutors, who works for a progressive city that voted last year to permanently shutter its juvenile hall – said it’s essential to ensure “proper release plans.” 

“This requires us to uplift and support families wherever and whenever possible as a primary placement option for young people,” Boudin said, “and requires us to defer prosecution in cases where we can safely do so.”

Jeremy Loudenback can be reached at

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