Three years ago, we were encouraged and relieved when youth justice systems across the country responded to the urgency of the pandemic by rapidly and substantially reducing the flow of young people into detention and correctional facilities while expediting safe release back to the community.
Were we seeing a “new normal” — a smaller, better system?
Three years later, with heightened fear of gun violence and crime, it might seem we’re back to the old status quo. However, the data tell us something different. While many systems have reverted to old norms, a significant number of jurisdictions — a third of those we’ve studied — have sustained and deepened reductions in detention. This signals that substantial reforms remain possible even when violent crime is a top concern.
This is significant because as new challenges arise — some exacerbated by the pandemic — young people need our best while system and community leaders need models for what works to support young people.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly hard for young people. During a pivotal time in their lives, teens had their routines disrupted, were isolated for extended periods of time and experienced increased domestic violence and abuse. They lost caregivers and loved ones, lived through parents’ job loss and uncertainty, and fell behind in their studies. And all of this is hitting young people of color the hardest, deepening and illuminating disparities that have existed for decades.
Not surprisingly, anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders have skyrocketed. Moreover, many communities, saturated with guns, are experiencing increasing rates of victimization and violence among youth after decades of historical declines, and have also started to see an alarming rise in the use of detention.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation has been tracking youth detention numbers, in dozens of systems around the country, every month since 2020. The detention population plummeted after the pandemic began, and reached its lowest point in January of 2021. But it has crept back up and now actually exceeds its pre-pandemic level by 5%, as of December 2022.
There are other reasons for alarm. Youth are spending almost 40% longer in detention than they were before the pandemic, according to our data. And the deep racial and ethnic disparities that existed long before the pandemic have only gotten worse. Our latest survey results showed that Black youth were detained at eight times the rate of white youth — up from six times before the pandemic.
Yet, the overall trends mask major differences by place. One-third of the 125 jurisdictions tracked made steep reductions — 30% in the past year — performing much better than their peers. What are these better-performing sites doing?
Communities took different approaches to significantly reducing youth confinement and supporting young people at home during the pandemic. For example, in New York City, probation, law enforcement and prosecutors collaboratively developed a new screening process that allowed young people to be assessed at the police station and released to their parents more quickly after an arrest, when appropriate. The Harris County (Houston) Juvenile Probation Department created a full-time position to expedite release for youth ready to return home and develop creative solutions for young people who had been in detention for a long time. And virtual programming expansions made it possible for young Maryland residents on the remote Eastern Shore to access treatment not previously available in their communities from a service provider in the western part of the state, almost 300 miles away.
There’s no one-size-fits-all response, but there are playbooks that guide the way. A series of briefs released in February detail the approaches five jurisdictions took to shrink the flow of young people into facilities and invest in more effective community-based strategies.
While there are a lot of unknowns in this world, it’s clear that the over-use of detention and incarceration are harmful and ineffective. We are not going to incarcerate our way out of the mental health crises and years of unmet needs experienced by so many youth during the pandemic. Yanking youth out of their homes and routines and isolating them from their natural support systems makes things worse, not better. It replicates many of the hardships the pandemic inflicted and does nothing to address the underlying problems that are driving young people to act out.
With the social restrictions of the early pandemic behind us, new challenges are and always will test system and community leaders. What we hope remains top of mind is what youth justice achieved in the recent past and can do again: keep more young people away from the justice system, safely return young people to their communities from facilities; make sure court hearings are happening and cases are moving on a timely schedule; and invest in community-centered solutions for youth and families who were struggling. Let’s do more of what works.