COVID-19 Juvenile Justice Survey: Youth Detention Admissions Fell by More Than Half in Two Months

Posted June 3, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Young person

A new sur­vey of juve­nile jus­tice agen­cies across the Unit­ed States found the rate of young peo­ple admit­ted to deten­tion fell 52% in March and April — a decline in two months equal to one that took place over 13 years.

The rapid drop in admis­sions, along with a sub­stan­tial over­all reduc­tion in the youth deten­tion pop­u­la­tion and a small but note­wor­thy nar­row­ing of racial dis­par­i­ties, are reflect­ed in an Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion sur­vey aimed at assess­ing the effects of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic on juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems. Work­ing with the Pre­tri­al Jus­tice Insti­tute and Empact Solu­tions, the Casey Foun­da­tion began col­lect­ing data short­ly after the COVID-19 cri­sis took hold.

But while admis­sions dra­mat­i­cal­ly slowed, so did the rate at which sys­tems released young peo­ple. After a burst of releas­es in March, the rate of release of young peo­ple from secure deten­tion in April dropped below its pre-COVID-19 lev­el, the lat­est data col­lect­ed by the sur­vey showed. This left many young peo­ple still liv­ing in con­fine­ment with­out access to oppor­tu­ni­ties or con­nec­tions, and poten­tial­ly vul­ner­a­ble to the virus.

It is under­stand­able and laud­able that juris­dic­tions have focused so much of their ener­gy on keep­ing youth out of deten­tion,” says Nate Balis, direc­tor of the Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. The next fron­tiers are get­ting youth out of deten­tion more quick­ly and under­stand­ing and tack­ling the obsta­cles stand­ing in the way.”

The new sur­vey is the sec­ond over the past two months. As was the case when the results of the first sur­vey — cov­er­ing Jan­u­ary through March — were released sev­er­al weeks ago, the data come with some caveats and unknowns. The juris­dic­tions respond­ing to the lat­est sur­vey are home to 35% of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion ages 10 to 17, but as a snap­shot of a sub­set of juris­dic­tions, it is not a nation­al esti­mate or ran­dom sample.

Across the pop­u­la­tions rep­re­sent­ed by the sur­vey respondents:

  • Youth deten­tion admis­sions fell 52% in March and April.
  • Dri­ven most­ly by the admis­sions drop, the total deten­tion pop­u­la­tion fell 32% from March 1 to May 1 with slight­ly more than two-thirds of respond­ing juris­dic­tions report­ing a decrease.
  • In Feb­ru­ary, an aver­age of 56% of young peo­ple who were in deten­tion dur­ing the month were released by the end of the month. In March, that aver­age rose to 61%, but in April, it fell to 53%.
  • Among respond­ing juris­dic­tions with access to infor­ma­tion about COVID-19 cas­es with­in facil­i­ties, 15% report­ed con­firmed or sus­pect­ed cas­es among staff or youth.

Long-stand­ing racial dis­par­i­ties nar­rowed slightly

Among juris­dic­tions that pro­vid­ed data dis­ag­gre­gat­ed by race and eth­nic­i­ty, about one-fifth of detained young peo­ple are white, while more than half are African Amer­i­can and near­ly a quar­ter are Lati­no; these dis­par­i­ties have long vexed those who have sought to reform the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem. Deten­tion pop­u­la­tions have grad­u­al­ly fall­en over the past two decades, with white youth expe­ri­enc­ing greater per­cent­age declines than youth of color.

Over the first two months of the pan­dem­ic cri­sis, how­ev­er, the larg­er rates of decrease were among youth of col­or, par­tic­u­lar­ly African Amer­i­can youth. While the num­ber of white youths in deten­tion fell by 26% from March 1 to May 1, the num­ber of African Amer­i­can youths and Lati­no youths fell by 30% and 29% respec­tive­ly. Two phe­nom­e­na are trend­ing in oppo­site direc­tions: Com­pared to white youth, there has been a larg­er decrease in the admis­sions rate for youth of col­or, but on the oth­er hand, there has been a small­er decrease in the release rate for youth of color.

Ear­ly in the juve­nile jus­tice process, courts decide whether to con­fine a young per­son in deten­tion or remain at home pend­ing his or her court hear­ing. Every year, an esti­mat­ed 218,000 young peo­ple are admit­ted to deten­tion facil­i­ties nation­wide, despite the neg­a­tive effects of deten­tion on young peo­ple and racial dis­par­i­ties that define juve­nile deten­tion in America.

Most of the respond­ing com­mu­ni­ties are involved in the Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive® (JDAI), a net­work of juve­nile jus­tice prac­ti­tion­ers and oth­er sys­tem stake­hold­ers across the coun­try work­ing to build a bet­ter and more equi­table youth jus­tice sys­tem. 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.

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