At Onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Dramatic and Rapid Reductions in Youth Detention

Posted April 23, 2020, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Juvenile Detention Population Decreased 24% Between March 1 and April 1, 2020

A sur­vey of juve­nile jus­tice agen­cies in 30 states fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion finds that the num­ber of young peo­ple in local secure deten­tion cen­ters fell by 24% in March 2020, a sign that the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic is dra­mat­i­cal­ly alter­ing the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem. The per­cent­age reduc­tion in youth deten­tion across these juris­dic­tions in a sin­gle month was as large as the nation­al decline over sev­en years from 2010 to 2017.

Learn about the COVID-19 survey

The Casey Foun­da­tion is shar­ing this analy­sis of sur­vey results, con­duct­ed with Pre­tri­al Jus­tice Insti­tute and Empact Solu­tions, to illu­mi­nate pat­terns and trends in the juve­nile jus­tice system’s response to the pan­dem­ic. The sur­vey cov­ers a large num­ber of juris­dic­tions — specif­i­cal­ly com­mu­ni­ties involved in the Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive® (JDAI) — that rep­re­sent approx­i­mate­ly one-tenth of the coun­ties in the Unit­ed States. It is nei­ther a ran­dom sam­ple nor the basis of a nation­al estimate.

The Role of Deten­tion Cen­ters in Juve­nile Justice

Deten­tion cen­ters are dif­fer­ent than youth pris­ons or oth­er res­i­den­tial place­ments where young peo­ple could be sen­tenced after being adju­di­cat­ed delin­quent. Rather, deten­tion is a cru­cial ear­ly phase in the juve­nile jus­tice process. It’s the point at which the courts decide whether to con­fine a young per­son pend­ing their court hear­ing or while await­ing place­ment into a cor­rec­tion­al or treat­ment facil­i­ty rather than allow­ing the young per­son to remain at home.

Oppor­tu­ni­ty for Last­ing Change

Every year, an esti­mat­ed 218,000 young peo­ple spend time in deten­tion facil­i­ties nation­wide, despite the neg­a­tive effects of deten­tion on young peo­ple and the con­tin­ued racial dis­par­i­ties that define juve­nile deten­tion in this country.

We are hop­ing this cri­sis teach­es us that juris­dic­tions can safe­ly reduce deten­tion even more dra­mat­i­cal­ly than many already have and keep young peo­ple who have been in trou­ble with the law safe­ly in their com­mu­ni­ties,” says Lisa Hamil­ton, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Foundation.

The juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem that emerges from this cri­sis will be pro­found­ly dif­fer­ent from the one that entered it just weeks ago,” says Nate Balis, direc­tor of the Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. The soon­er we can under­stand exact­ly how and why these changes are occur­ring, the bet­ter equipped we will be to ensure that the last­ing changes will be pos­i­tive ones.”

Begun almost three decades ago as a pilot project to reduce reliance on deten­tion, JDAI reach­es near­ly one-third of the total U.S. youth pop­u­la­tion and is active in more than 300 cities and coun­ties in 40 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia.

Key Find­ings From Juve­nile Jus­tice Survey

The sur­vey find­ings include the following:

Secure deten­tion pop­u­la­tions fell by 24% from March 1 to April 1 (from 3,713 to 2,828).

  • This decrease occurred broad­ly, with 64% of respond­ing juris­dic­tions see­ing a decrease from March 1 to April 1. Nine­teen per­cent saw no change and 17% had an increase in population.

The decrease in pop­u­la­tion was dri­ven pri­mar­i­ly by a steep decline in the rate of admissions.

Drop in Juvenile Detention Population Mostly Due to Decrease in Average Admissions Per Day During March 2020

  • In Jan­u­ary and Feb­ru­ary, these juris­dic­tions report­ed an aver­age of 171 admis­sions per day. But in March, the aver­age was just 122 admis­sions per day ― 29% below the pre-pan­dem­ic rate.

Juris­dic­tions increased the rate at which they were releas­ing young peo­ple from secure detention.

Juvenile Justice Systems Released Youth at a Higher Rate in March 2020

  • In Jan­u­ary and Feb­ru­ary, an aver­age of about 58% of young peo­ple who were in deten­tion dur­ing the month were released by the end of the month. In March, even while admis­sions were plum­met­ing, that rate of releas­es increased to 62%.

As of mid-April, most juris­dic­tions had no con­firmed COVID-19 cas­es among their youth or staff.

  • Most juris­dic­tions (85% of those respond­ing) had no one test pos­i­tive at the time of the survey.
  • Among the 15% that did, staff began to test pos­i­tive for the virus ear­li­er than youth did and in greater num­bers. In total, there were 33 staff cas­es, with the ear­li­est con­firmed case on March 15, and 15 youth cas­es, with the ear­li­est con­firmed on March 20.

Juris­dic­tions vary con­sid­er­ably in how they cap­ture infor­ma­tion about race and eth­nic­i­ty, but 87% of respon­dents said they could dis­ag­gre­gate at least some of their data by race and ethnicity.

  • Based on these respons­es, Casey is devel­op­ing a fol­low-up sur­vey to dis­ag­gre­gate as much of the data in this sur­vey as pos­si­ble by the end of April. Start­ing with the May sur­vey, all data will be request­ed dis­ag­gre­gat­ed by race and ethnicity.

This sur­vey, con­duct­ed from April 8 to 17 and cov­er­ing the peri­od from Jan­u­ary 1 to April 1, is unique because it reports on data from hun­dreds of juris­dic­tions in close to real time. Infor­ma­tion came from large urban coun­ties and small rur­al courts, among a wide range of juris­dic­tions that col­lec­tive­ly held more than 3,700 youths in secure deten­tion on March 1, 2020. For per­spec­tive, approx­i­mate­ly 15,660 young peo­ple are held in deten­tion nation­al­ly on any giv­en night, accord­ing to the most recent fed­er­al data in 2017.

There are no direct points of com­par­i­son that place this one-month reduc­tion in con­text. Avail­able data on deten­tion uti­liza­tion from nation­al sur­veys indi­cate that sig­nif­i­cant reduc­tions in deten­tion typ­i­cal­ly accrue over sev­er­al years.

The Casey Foun­da­tion will con­tin­ue to con­duct and extend this month­ly sur­vey for the dura­tion of the COVID-19 crisis.

Data Caveats on Sur­vey of Juve­nile Jus­tice Systems

There is no cur­rent nation­al cen­sus against which the March 2020 data could be com­pared to give a sense of how large of a sam­ple this sur­vey reflects. But the most recent nation­al cen­sus of youths in deten­tion cen­ters by the fed­er­al Office of Juve­nile Jus­tice and Delin­quen­cy Pre­ven­tion, dat­ed Octo­ber 2017, found that there were 15,660 detained youths in res­i­den­tial place­ment at that time. The pop­u­la­tion count­ed in this sur­vey is more than one-fifth of that figure.

This is a non-ran­dom sam­ple, so not an accu­rate source from which to derive nation­al esti­mates nor deter­mine sta­tis­ti­cal­ly how rep­re­sen­ta­tive this group of juris­dic­tions is of the nation as a whole.

View the Casey Foun­da­tion’s news release about this study

Learn about the COVID-19 survey

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