Juvenile Detention Population Plummeted as the Pandemic Spread, Survey Suggests

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country in March, the number of juveniles in pretrial detention fell by nearly a quarter, according to a survey of government agencies in 30 states released Thursday. 

The drop came amid a sharp decline in crime, and after vocal campaigning and litigating by advocates coast-to-coast seeking the release of young people accused of lower-level offenses, and those with underlying health conditions at greater risk of coronavirus infection in crowded facilities.

“We could be in a place with a much, much smaller juvenile detention population, and one that I would speculate is at least closer to the right-sizing that so many great advocates have been fighting for, for so long — truly limited to young people that pose an immediate community safety risk,” said Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group. The foundation conducted the survey of 150 state and local governments and judicial branches nationwide. “This pandemic is also having this impact in a very short window of time, which has been hard to accomplish across years and years of efforts to reduce the detention population.”

The decline comes after the number of people in juvenile detention nationally had already fallen over 40 percent, from 28,040 to 15,660, from 1997 to 2017. Last month’s decline also matched that of the last seven years. 

The Baltimorebased Casey Foundation, a major financial backer of efforts to reduce the number of incarcerated youth, polled states, counties, and judicial districts that shared data from roughly 300 counties. All had been participating in Casey’s long-running justice reform campaign, and had already reduced their populations significantly in recent years. But the pace of reductions increased dramatically last month, plummeting 24 percent across all entities surveyed, from 3,713 youth to 2,828. 

Youth of color in detention are typically overrepresented, but the data released Thursday by the Casey Foundation did not include a breakdown by race and ethnicity of young people who remain locked up during the pandemic. Those findings are expected to be released in another report next month.  

“What happens in April, when we have a full month of no young people in school, and probation is largely stepping back and not making in-person contact?” Balis said. “We could see a much steeper decline.” 

Detention entries were down 29 percent from February to March, which could mean either fewer young people were arrested, or more were diverted to detention alternatives or had charges dismissed, according to Balis and other observers. Casey’s survey respondents also revealed that detention releases had ticked up 11 percent, as lawyers in Texas, California, Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland pursued the large-scale release of accused juveniles in response to the pandemic.

Among the 30 states that the Casey Foundation received survey responses from, some have different age thresholds for sending kids to juvenile detention versus adult lockups. A few set the maximum age at 17, and many others at 18. Most detainees are teens, but many states have no minimum age for detention eligibility. 

“This shows people are taking serious steps to lower detention,” said Hernán Carvente Martinez, National Youth Partnership Strategist with the Youth First Initiative. “But one of the things that also needs to be clear is that other states and local jurisdictions need to take the example of these places and expedite the release of as many young people as possible.” 

Carvente Martinez, who was detained in upstate New York as a teenager during Hurricane Irene in 2011, added that facilities need to be proactive in addressing the fear that comes with a disaster.

“My fear was whether or not this facility would be the end of me — whether I’d be there without food, light, family support. I can only imagine the impending anxiety and fear wondering if this virus gets into your facility, and you get it and die,”  he said. “The  immediate danger can push young people in a bad direction that we don’t want them to go — because they are afraid.” 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that corrections facilities present “unique challenges” for social distancing during the pandemic, while advocates in more than 30 states have stressed that youth are at risk of suffering the consequences, despite early indications that the coronavirus would not be as grave an illness for young people.

The Casey Foundation’s survey was sent to participants in its Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, and jurisdictions had all opted in to receiving Casey’s support to improve practices, including grants, training, and technical assistance. 

The Foundation’s Balis said from what the surveyed agencies reported, it seemed especially heartening that youth releases from detention appeared to increase, even as far fewer youth were being detained – aside from, presumably, the highest-level crimes.

Still, he and other observers preached caution in interpreting these early findings. 

“It’s way too early to make suppositions. We won’t know for months what the data will tell us in terms of recidivism,” said Wayne Bear, executive director of the Pennsylvania Partnership for Juvenile Services. “If they are being released because of the COVID virus and aren’t being connected with services, there are a lot of variables that are really going to cause chaos in terms of evaluating outcomes.”

Michael Fitzgerald can be reached at mfitzgerald@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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