Juvenile Detention: Fewer Coming In or Out As Pandemic Continues

The Annie E. Casey Foundation continues to supply a macro-level look at how the use of juvenile detention has changed during the coronavirus pandemic. Its most recent release of data today shows two trends in May that could portend a more dramatic shift next month.

Before we get into the new data, here is a quick summary of their findings from March and April. This is drawn from a survey of jurisdictions in 33 states, and the respondents cover about a third of the youth population. 

March: Entries into detention fell by 29%, and the number of releases from detention went up by 11%. This happened as juvenile justice advocates around the country began to plead with systems to release any youth who wasn’t a true danger to public safety, given the fears that locked facilities would become petri dishes for a highly spreadable disease. Click here to read more.

April: The decline in admissions reached 52%, but the average daily population only dropped by 32% because the release rate had slowed to pre-coronavirus levels. Click here to read more. 

Admissions per day. Source Annie E. Casey Foundation

In May, as many states began to loosen restrictions on movement and reopen previously shuttered businesses, daily admissions to detention facilities very slightly ticked upward – it was 99 per day in April and 103 in May, both way below the February average of 207. 

But May’s survey strongly suggests a hesitance to release the youth who are in detention right now. Nearly two-thirds of youth in detention in March were released that month, higher than, but pretty consistent with the rates for January and February. In May, just 48% of youth detained were released. 

And in the past month, white youth in detention were released at a higher rate than Black youth, and that has erased a notable cut in the disproportionality figures from previous coronavirus months (should we just start referring to these as “coronamonths?”).

This month’s trends brought sharp criticism from Youth First CEO Liz Ryan, whose organization has helped mount local campaigns to close juvenile justice facilities around the country. 

“We know that detention is harmful to youth under normal circumstances, and now, this harm is amplified exponentially by the threat of this highly infectious virus, and juvenile detention officials’ failure to act is falling hardest on Black youth,” Ryan said, in a statement issued after Casey released today’s survey. “Juvenile detention agencies’ inactions during COVID-19 has exacerbated racial disparities and is utterly irresponsible and disgraceful.”

Percentage of youth detained for one day in a given month who were released. Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation

The numbers don’t spell out why releases have slowed, and there are plenty of speculative possibilities. One logical leap would, given the drop in admissions, might be that systems are reserving detention for youth who screen as high risk – which many would argue should be the norm – and thus are less likely to quickly release them before adjudication. 

Juvenile justice expert Lisa Macaluso said that doesn’t hold water based on her experience.  

“I’m skeptical of that explanation,” said Macaluso, who is managing director of juvenile justice for the nonprofit Case Commons. “I don’t know of many jurisdictions that are only holding kids charged with serious offenses.”   

Other possible contributors: 

  • In general, systems focused their coronavirus planning around lowering admissions and didn’t really think about changing their thinking on release policy.
  • Some residential options are still closed to new referrals, making it harder to send a youth from detention to a placement if that is what the judge decides to do.
  • Some families are wary of allowing a youth to come from a detention center into a home with older or health-compromised people. Or in some places, including Los Angeles, officials believe their facilities are safer than the alternative. 

Whatever the reasons are, the May trends suggest, in our humble opinion, that June could show a big spike in detention use. Most states were significantly more “open” last month than they had been in May, and there were hundreds of protests across the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department. Some cities experienced looting and vandalism, and several put a curfew in place. 

All of those factors point to the likelihood of more arrests in general, meaning a higher denominator of youth who could be detained. And that could have happened against a backdrop where systems were still hesitant to release the youth already in those centers. 

John Kelly can be reached at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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