As Youth Services Insider mentioned back in July, nobody has done more to track the presence of coronavirus in juvenile settings than The Sentencing Project’s Josh Rovner. His updates on Twitter have slowed from daily to periodic, but he is still combing media coverage, government updates and more to provide a national context that the federal government thus far has not added, at least publicly.
Today, The Sentencing Project released a “lessons learned” brief that pairs Rovner’s research with recommendations on how systems can better control the spread of COVID-19 as the virus lingers this winter.
Juvenile justice systems “need to find and track the virus in their facilities and report what they find to the public,” said the report, entitled Youth Justice Under the Coronavirus. “Absent federal leadership, states and counties will be forced to do this on their own.”
As of Sept. 23, the report said, approximately 1,800 youth and 2,500 staff members had documented cases of coronavirus. There has not been a recorded COVID-19 death of an incarcerated youth, but the report identifies four staff who have died.
The spread of the virus inside juvenile facilities was “inevitable,” the report said, and given the outsized proportion of incarcerated youth who are not white, “there is little doubt that youth of color are suffering disproportionately from the virus and the changes within facilities that it has brought.” Among the most prevalent policy changes made early in the pandemic were the cancellation of visits, leaving youth inside more disconnected from family than they already were at a time of national crisis, and the suspension of in-person education and other prosocial services inside.
The report recommends that, as the nation braces for a potential worsening of the pandemic during the winter, juvenile justice systems release incarcerated youth who are near the end of court-ordered treatments, and restrict entry to juvenile facilities to only youth who “pose an immediate and serious threat to their communities.” When youth are incarcerated, the report said they should not be moved from one facility to another.
Perhaps the most clear lesson learned from Rovner’s continued tracking is the need for regular testing of youth and staff. Texas tested everyone at its six state facilities after one worker died of COVID-19 and found that about 15% of staff and youth were positive for the virus.
“Massive testing is the only path to ensuring that the virus can be found in congregate care settings,” the report said.