Report: Youth Incarceration Is Largely Unnecessary

Posted October 27, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Giddings State School (Texas)

Giddings State School (Texas) | Courtesy of Google Maps

Youth jus­tice sys­tems have been chal­lenged dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic to pro­tect the safe­ty and well-being of youth and staff. In a new report, the Sen­tenc­ing Project com­piles the lessons the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem has learned to lim­it the spread of COVID-19. The report’s author, Josh Rovn­er, links the pub­lic health pro­tec­tions tak­en by youth jus­tice sys­tems — name­ly reduc­ing the num­ber of youths in secure con­fine­ment — with the move­ment for youth decarcer­a­tion, argu­ing that youth incar­cer­a­tion is large­ly unnecessary.

COVID-19 and juve­nile jus­tice facilities

The report begins by track­ing the growth of COVID-19 in juve­nile jus­tice facil­i­ties, based in part on research fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion. The Sen­tenc­ing Project cal­cu­lates that between March and Sep­tem­ber 2020 more than 1,800 young peo­ple and 2,500 staff have test­ed pos­i­tive for COVID-19 in juve­nile deten­tion cen­ters, res­i­den­tial treat­ment facil­i­ties and oth­er set­tings that make up the deep end of the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem. Four staff mem­bers work­ing in juve­nile facil­i­ties have died from the virus.

Large, crowd­ed facil­i­ties are des­tined to be breed­ing grounds for virus­es, the report says. Fur­ther, as bad as the cri­sis in youth facil­i­ties has been, it would have been worse with­out two decades of juve­nile jus­tice reform that result­ed in few­er youths in facil­i­ties over­all and small­er, less crowd­ed facil­i­ties. The nation­al one-day count of youth in juve­nile jus­tice facil­i­ties was 65% low­er in 2018 than in 2000: 37,529 youths were housed in 1,510 facil­i­ties around the coun­try in 2018 com­pared to 108,802 youths in 3,047 facil­i­ties in 2000.

Youth with COVID-19 diagnoses in juvenile facilities

This par­tial suc­cess not only jus­ti­fies past reforms that closed large youth pris­ons and sought alter­na­tives to incar­cer­a­tion, but points to a fur­ther need to close more youth facil­i­ties and pro­mote alter­na­tives to incar­cer­a­tion that keep kids safe­ly in the com­mu­ni­ty with their fam­i­lies,” Rovn­er writes.

Rec­om­men­da­tions to lim­it juve­nile incarceration

The report rec­om­mends states and coun­ties lim­it their use of incar­cer­a­tion. Drops in admis­sions dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, along­side deci­sions to release youth at a high­er rate than dur­ing ordi­nary times, but­tress the long-stand­ing case that youth incar­cer­a­tion is large­ly unnec­es­sary,” accord­ing to Rovner. 

Rec­om­men­da­tions include:

  • lim­it­ing admis­sion to facil­i­ties to youths who pose an imme­di­ate and seri­ous threat to their communities;
  • restrict­ing the use of incar­cer­a­tion only to those youths who can­not be safe­ly treat­ed at home;
  • ensur­ing fre­quent com­mu­ni­ca­tion between youth in facil­i­ties and their fam­i­lies; and
  • [states] pub­lish­ing the num­ber of COVID-19 tests with pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive results among youth and staff in all their facil­i­ties, whether man­aged by the state, its coun­ties or con­tract providers.

The pan­dem­ic has under­scored that incar­cer­a­tion remains the default response for far too many young peo­ple in the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem who could stay in the com­mu­ni­ty safe­ly,” says Nate Balis, direc­tor of the Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. There’s no going back to over­re­liance on youth incarceration.”

Relat­ed resources on COVID-19 and juve­nile justice

Grow­ing num­bers of Lati­no and Native youth in juve­nile deten­tion buck trend

Juve­nile jus­tice pri­or­i­ties dur­ing and after the COVID-19 pandemic

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