Survey: A Pandemic High for the Number of Black Youth in Juvenile Detention

Posted March 26, 2021, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Data on juvenile justice through Feb. 1, 2021

A sur­vey by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion of youth jus­tice agen­cies finds the pop­u­la­tion of Black youth in juve­nile deten­tion on Feb. 1, 2021, reached a pan­dem­ic high, while that of white youth was the sec­ond low­est record­ed in more than a year.

The expe­ri­ences between Black and white youth diverged the most when it came to the pace at which they were released from deten­tion. Black youth stayed longer in deten­tion than their white peers — and even longer than before the pan­dem­ic began. The dif­fer­ence in release rates between youth of col­or and white youth was the largest ever record­ed in this survey.

This sur­vey, con­duct­ed each month since the pan­dem­ic began in March 2020, is aimed at assess­ing the effects of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic on juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems around the coun­try. The Foun­da­tion cap­tured trends from 144 juris­dic­tions in 33 states, rep­re­sent­ing more than 30% of the nation’s youth pop­u­la­tion (ages 10 – 17). As of Feb. 1, 2021 — the most recent data avail­able — the major find­ings were as follows:

  • Releas­es from deten­tion were slow­er to occur in Jan­u­ary 2021 than dur­ing any month since the pan­dem­ic began, espe­cial­ly for Black and Lati­no youth of color.
  • The pop­u­la­tion of Black and Lati­no youth grew 14% and 2%, respec­tive­ly, from May 1, 2020, through Feb. 1, 2021, while the pop­u­la­tion of white, non-Lati­no youth fell 6%.
  • Over­all, the youth deten­tion pop­u­la­tion rose by more than 6% from May 1 to Feb. 1, dri­ven by Black and Lati­no youth lin­ger­ing longer in detention.
  • Admis­sions to deten­tion remained low — almost 50% low­er than their pre-pan­dem­ic lev­el in Jan­u­ary 2020.
  • Deten­tion facil­i­ties record­ed few­er active COVID-19 cas­es among youth and staff than when the case counts peaked at year-end 2020 into ear­ly 2021.

Juris­dic­tions have told us they think that longer lengths of stay in deten­tion are being dri­ven by a deten­tion pop­u­la­tion that now only con­tains youth with the most seri­ous offens­es and com­plex cas­es,” said Nate Balis, the direc­tor of the Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. If that’s so for all racial and eth­nic groups, then juris­dic­tions must deter­mine why it’s pri­mar­i­ly Black and Lati­no youth who seem to be get­ting stuck in detention.”

Key Sur­vey Indicators

The youth deten­tion pop­u­la­tion by race

Among sur­vey sites that pro­vide data dis­ag­gre­gat­ed by race and eth­nic­i­ty, the pop­u­la­tion of Black youth in deten­tion on Feb. 1, 2021, reached a pan­dem­ic high, while the pop­u­la­tion of white youth was the sec­ond low­est since this sur­vey began. The pop­u­la­tion in deten­tion is a func­tion of two things: how many young peo­ple are admit­ted, and how long they stay. While changes in month­ly admis­sion rates since before the pan­dem­ic have con­tributed to the wors­en­ing dis­par­i­ties by race and eth­nic­i­ty, they are not the main dri­vers. Rather the dis­par­i­ties mount­ed because Black and Lati­no youth were stuck in deten­tion longer than their white peers.

Youth Detention Population by Race

Pace of releas­es by race

When the pan­dem­ic took hold in March 2020, sys­tems accel­er­at­ed releas­es across all racial and eth­nic groups. Over the sum­mer and fall, dis­par­i­ties in the release rate favor­ing white youth grew substantially.

Pace of releases from youth detention by race

The over­all pop­u­la­tion in youth detention

On Feb. 1, 2021, deten­tion facil­i­ties par­tic­i­pat­ing in the sur­vey held 26% few­er young peo­ple than a year ear­li­er; and 28% few­er than on March 1, 2020, short­ly before COVID-19 was declared a pan­dem­ic. The youth deten­tion pop­u­la­tion plunged by 31% from March 1 to May 1 and has fluc­tu­at­ed with­in a nar­row range since then.

The Overall Population in Youth Detention

Hypo­thet­i­cal youth deten­tion pop­u­la­tion if releas­es kept pace with March 2020 level

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

Hypothetical youth detention population if releases kept pace with March 2020 level

COVID-19 cas­es in youth deten­tion facilities

Decem­ber and Jan­u­ary saw the high­est preva­lence to date of COVID-19 cas­es among both youth and staff in deten­tion cen­ters. The case counts had dropped on the day that agen­cies com­plet­ed the Feb­ru­ary sur­vey, with juris­dic­tions report­ing 116 active cas­es among youth and 221 active cas­es among staff.

COVID-19 Cases in Youth Detention Facilities

An Urgent Need

These 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 respons­es to the pandemic.

The Foun­da­tion will con­tin­ue its month­ly sur­vey of youth jus­tice agen­cies 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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