How Two JDAI Sites Are Accelerating Youth Justice Reforms During the Pandemic

Posted September 9, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Let's help young people who come into contact with the juvenile justice system remain in their communities

In response to the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems across the coun­try have reduced their use of unnec­es­sary youth con­fine­ment — an out­come long advo­cat­ed for by Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The glob­al pan­dem­ic has moti­vat­ed a grow­ing num­ber of juris­dic­tions to make reforms that reflect what research says is best for young peo­ple: They belong with their fam­i­lies — not in insti­tu­tions,” says Rob Geen, direc­tor of Pol­i­cy Reform and Advo­ca­cy at the Foun­da­tion. When the pub­lic health cri­sis is over, juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems should col­lec­tive­ly com­mit to nev­er going back to unnec­es­sar­i­ly lock­ing up kids to ensure their appear­ance in court.”

Ques­tions to help juve­nile jus­tice agen­cies reduce youth detention

Even short stays in deten­tion facil­i­ties have harm­ful effects on youth, includ­ing the increased like­li­hood of recidi­vism. The Foundation’s Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive® (JDAI®) has demon­strat­ed more effec­tive and equi­table ways to keep young peo­ple safe and on track for long-term suc­cess while still hold­ing them account­able for their actions. Two JDAI sites — the state of Mary­land and Har­ris Coun­ty, Texas — pro­vide exam­ples of juris­dic­tions accel­er­at­ing deten­tion reform dur­ing the pandemic.


Respond­ing to a peti­tion by the Mary­land Office of the Pub­lic Defend­er in April 2020, the state’s chief judge instruct­ed low­er courts to con­sid­er the pan­dem­ic when mak­ing deci­sions about con­fin­ing youth accused of delin­quent acts. Judi­cial action result­ed in the release of approx­i­mate­ly 60% of Maryland’s youth from incar­cer­a­tion and the expand­ed use of alter­na­tives to deten­tion (ATD) by the state’s Depart­ment of Juve­nile Services.

Youth who were released on ATD attend­ed court hear­ings and remained offense free while await­ing their hear­ings at vir­tu­al­ly the same high rates as before and, in some cas­es, per­formed bet­ter than pri­or groups,” says Sam J. Abed, sec­re­tary of Maryland’s Depart­ment of Juve­nile Services.

For­tu­nate­ly, inno­va­tions cre­at­ed to address the pan­dem­ic are poised to out­last the cri­sis, accord­ing to Abed. New pro­ce­dures and prac­tices include reg­u­lar statewide reviews to expe­dite releas­es; shift­ing com­mu­ni­ty ser­vices to the front end of the sys­tem as diver­sion options; and com­mu­ni­ty super­vi­sion changes — for exam­ple, con­nect­ing with youth via video chats instead of in-per­son vis­its to the department.

For now, Mary­land has made only lim­it­ed progress in address­ing racial dis­par­i­ties, with young peo­ple of col­or con­sti­tut­ing approx­i­mate­ly 80% of all youth in its deten­tion and res­i­den­tial facil­i­ties. Yet, such progress is still remark­able,” accord­ing to Abed, who notes that past state efforts have failed to real­ize even these small gains. The recent reforms should be pre­served and stud­ied so that the crit­i­cal aspects can be repli­cat­ed,” he says.

A statewide group includ­ing leg­is­la­tors and advo­cates is cur­rent­ly exam­in­ing which new deten­tion reforms should be embed­ded in state law.

Har­ris Coun­ty, Texas

In Har­ris Coun­ty, home to Hous­ton, the Juve­nile Pro­ba­tion Depart­ment has been work­ing with judges and oth­er juve­nile jus­tice stake­hold­ers to devel­op plans for safe­ly releas­ing young peo­ple in detention.

COVID-19 lit a fire in Har­ris Coun­ty,” says Hen­ry Gon­za­les, the department’s exec­u­tive direc­tor. Every­one has gone the extra mile to keep young peo­ple safe and out of con­fine­ment. From Jan­u­ary to May, we cut our deten­tion pop­u­la­tion in half, bring­ing the pop­u­la­tion to its low­est lev­el in more than 30 years.”

The county’s two res­i­den­tial facil­i­ties, which housed about 100 young peo­ple pre-pan­dem­ic, have expe­ri­enced sim­i­lar drops in youth con­fine­ment. One facil­i­ty has tem­porar­i­ly closed and the oth­er now serves around 20 youth. Also encour­ag­ing: Among all the young peo­ple released from these facil­i­ties, just three have end­ed up back in con­fine­ment, accord­ing to the lat­est data.

One key play­er in all this progress? Com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions that take refer­rals from the pro­ba­tion depart­ment. The faith-based non­prof­it reVi­sion, for exam­ple, has a suc­cess­ful track record of men­tor­ing young peo­ple who are incar­cer­at­ed. In the last few months, reVi­sion has reached out to fam­i­lies of released youth to assess and meet their needs. With the pan­dem­ic increas­ing unem­ploy­ment, some fam­i­lies need­ed assis­tance fil­ing for unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits. Oth­ers need­ed help nav­i­gat­ing rental assis­tance plans. reVi­sion has also pro­vid­ed more than 100 fam­i­lies and count­ing with food and hot meals.

Like Mary­land, Har­ris Coun­ty has made only lim­it­ed progress in reduc­ing racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties, with chil­dren of col­or more like­ly to be locked up for the same behav­ior as their white coun­ter­parts. Gon­za­les is hope­ful, how­ev­er, that a new screen­ing tool for deten­tion will help to decrease the over­all pop­u­la­tion while also reduc­ing racial and eth­nic disparities.

When asked if Har­ris Coun­ty would main­tain its COVID-relat­ed reforms after the health cri­sis end­ed, Gon­za­les is also opti­mistic. I hope that this is the new nor­mal,” he says.

Read Casey’s call to action on juve­nile probation

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