Juvenile Justice Is Smaller, but More Unequal, After First Year of COVID-19

Posted March 9, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Young person being placed in leg shackles

A year after the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic began, the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion finds that a his­toric drop in the size of the youth deten­tion pop­u­la­tion at the begin­ning of 2020 did noth­ing to reduce the already huge racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties in who gets detained, despite the health con­cerns of con­fine­ment dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and a nation­al reck­on­ing about racial jus­tice. In fact, the over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Black and Lati­no youth in deten­tion was worse at the start of 2021 than it was the year prior.

The Foundation’s find­ings are based on a new sur­vey that mea­sured month-to-month changes in the use of secure deten­tion by juve­nile jus­tice agen­cies in 2020. The Foun­da­tion cap­tured trends in close to real time from more than 140 juris­dic­tions in 33 states, rep­re­sent­ing more than 30% of the nation’s youth pop­u­la­tion (ages 10 to 17).

Admis­sions to deten­tion for all youth, regard­less of race or eth­nic­i­ty, plum­met­ed in 2020. How­ev­er, of the youth in deten­tion, Black and Lati­no youth were more like­ly to linger there than their white peers, who were quick­er to be released.

Juris­dic­tions are striv­ing for greater equi­ty and less reliance on deten­tion, but they can­not advance those goals unless they find ways to expe­dite releas­es from deten­tion for Black and Lati­no youth,” said Nate Balis, the direc­tor of the Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group.

The fol­low­ing charts tell the story.

On Jan. 1, 2021, deten­tion facil­i­ties par­tic­i­pat­ing in the sur­vey held about 35% few­er young peo­ple than on March 1, 2020. Nine­ty per­cent of that decrease hap­pened in the first two months of the pan­dem­ic (from March 1 to May 1, 2020). Since then, the deten­tion pop­u­la­tion has fluc­tu­at­ed with­in a nar­row range, grad­u­al­ly ris­ing in the sum­mer and fall of 2020 and then falling in Novem­ber and Decem­ber. The pop­u­la­tion in deten­tion is a func­tion of two things: how many young peo­ple are admit­ted, and how long they stay. A slow­down in the month­ly release rate has been push­ing the youth deten­tion pop­u­la­tion sig­nif­i­cant­ly higher.

The Overall Population in Youth Detention (Jan 2020–Jan 2021)

If the release rate had stayed at its peak lev­el of 64% in every month since March, one of every three young peo­ple in deten­tion at that time would have been home.

Hypothetical youth detention population if releases kept page with March 2020 levels

How­ev­er, racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties have wors­ened as white youth were released at a faster rate than their non-white peers. Among sur­vey sites that pro­vide data dis­ag­gre­gat­ed by race and eth­nic­i­ty, the deten­tion pop­u­la­tion fell by more than 30% across all groups from March 1 to May 1. But since then, trends have diverged, favor­ing white youth. From May 1, 2020, to Jan. 1, 2021, 10% few­er white youth were detained, com­pared with 2% few­er Black youth and 3% few­er Lati­no youth.

Youth Detention Population By Race (March 2020–January 2021)

When the pan­dem­ic took hold in March, sys­tems accel­er­at­ed releas­es across all racial and eth­nic groups. Over the sum­mer and fall, dis­par­i­ties in the release rate grew sub­stan­tial­ly. As a result, by the end of 2020, the gap in the rate at which white youth and youth of col­or were released was near­ly twice as large as before the pan­dem­ic, grow­ing from four per­cent­age points in Feb­ru­ary to sev­en per­cent­age points in Decem­ber. If all youth had been released at the same rate as white youth in every month since the start of the pan­dem­ic, the non-white pop­u­la­tion on Jan. 1, 2021, would have been 28% low­er than it was.

Pace of Releases From Youth Detention By Race

Against this back­drop, it is espe­cial­ly con­cern­ing that Decem­ber and Jan­u­ary saw the high­est preva­lence to date of COVID-19 cas­es among both youth and staff in deten­tion cen­ters. On the day they com­plet­ed the Jan­u­ary sur­vey, juris­dic­tions report­ed 133 active cas­es among youth and 550 active cas­es among staff.

COVID-19 Cases in Youth Detention Facilities (April 2020–Jan 2021)

These year-end find­ings demon­strate an urgent need for juve­nile jus­tice agen­cies to over­come obsta­cles to expe­dit­ing releas­es from deten­tion, espe­cial­ly for young peo­ple of col­or. Sys­tems can use proven approach­es to accel­er­at­ing releas­es from deten­tion and ask them­selves tough ques­tions to guide their response to the pandemic.

The Foun­da­tion will con­tin­ue its month­ly sur­vey of juve­nile jus­tice through­out 2021 to assess the effects of the pan­dem­ic on juve­nile jus­tice systems.

Empact Solu­tions has con­tributed to data col­lec­tion and analy­sis efforts since the youth deten­tion sur­vey launched in April 2020.

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