Survey: Amid Pandemic, Youth Detention Population Fell 24% in One Month, Matching a Recent Seven-Year Period

Posted April 23, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Juvenile justice systems reduced the detention population by 24% in one month

A sur­vey of juve­nile jus­tice agen­cies in 30 states has found that the num­ber of young peo­ple in local secure deten­tion cen­ters fell by 24% in March 2020, the month dur­ing which the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic took hold in the Unit­ed States. The per­cent­age reduc­tion in youth deten­tion across these juris­dic­tions in one month was as large as the nation­al decline over a recent sev­en-year peri­od (from 2010 to 2017).

These devel­op­ments are a sign that the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic is dra­mat­i­cal­ly alter­ing the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem, accord­ing to the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion — a Bal­ti­more-based nation­al phil­an­thropy focused on the well-being of young peo­ple — which con­duct­ed the sur­vey with the Pre­tri­al Jus­tice Insti­tute and Empact Solutions.

Learn more about the COVID-19 survey

We hope this sit­u­a­tion helps demon­strate that juris­dic­tions can safe­ly reduce deten­tion even more dra­mat­i­cal­ly than many already have and keep young peo­ple who have been in trou­ble with the law in their com­mu­ni­ties,” said Casey Foun­da­tion Pres­i­dent and CEO Lisa Hamil­ton.

The data car­ry sev­er­al caveats and unknowns. Although the sur­vey cov­ers a large num­ber of juris­dic­tions rep­re­sent­ing about one-tenth of the coun­ties in the Unit­ed States, it is not a nation­al esti­mate. Rather, the sur­vey is a snap­shot of a sub­set of juris­dic­tions — specif­i­cal­ly, com­mu­ni­ties involved in the Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive® (JDAI). Put anoth­er way: This is nei­ther a ran­dom sam­ple nor a nation­al estimate.

Nev­er­the­less, this sur­vey, con­duct­ed between April 8 and April 17 and cov­er­ing the peri­od from Jan­u­ary 1 to April 1, is of val­ue to the juve­nile jus­tice field because it reports on data from hun­dreds of juris­dic­tions in close to real time. More­over, the infor­ma­tion comes from sys­tems that col­lec­tive­ly held more than 3,700 young peo­ple in secure deten­tion on March 1 in set­tings rang­ing from large urban coun­ties to small rur­al coun­ties. For per­spec­tive, approx­i­mate­ly 15,660 young peo­ple are held in deten­tion nation­al­ly on any giv­en night, accord­ing to the most recent fed­er­al data from 2017.

The sur­vey found:

  • Secure deten­tion pop­u­la­tions at the facil­i­ties account­ed for in the sur­vey fell by 24% from March 1 to April 1 (from 3,713 to 2,828).
  • The decrease in pop­u­la­tion was dri­ven pri­mar­i­ly by a steep decline in the rate of admis­sions (an aver­age of 171 per day in Jan­u­ary and Feb­ru­ary but 122 per day in March, a 29% decrease).
  • Juris­dic­tions slight­ly increased the rate at which they were releas­ing young peo­ple from secure deten­tion (an aver­age of 58% of young peo­ple who were in deten­tion dur­ing Jan­u­ary or Feb­ru­ary were released by the end of that month; in March, the rate of release increased to 62%).
  • A mod­est share of juris­dic­tions — 15% — had con­firmed COVID-19 cas­es in their deten­tion facil­i­ties by ear­ly to mid-April. With­in those facil­i­ties, staff began to test pos­i­tive for the virus ear­li­er than youth and staff cas­es have been more numer­ous than cas­es affect­ing youth.

The Casey Foun­da­tion will con­tin­ue to con­duct and extend this month­ly sur­vey for the dura­tion of the COVID-19 cri­sis. Start­ing with the May sur­vey, respon­dents will be asked to dis­ag­gre­gate all data by race and ethnicity.

The juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem that emerges from this cri­sis will be pro­found­ly dif­fer­ent from the one that entered it just weeks ago,” said Nate Balis, direc­tor of the Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. The soon­er we can under­stand exact­ly how and why these changes are occur­ring, the bet­ter equipped we will be to ensure that the last­ing changes will be pos­i­tive ones.”

Deten­tion is a cru­cial ear­ly phase in the juve­nile jus­tice process. It is the point at which the courts decide whether to con­fine a young per­son pend­ing his or her court hear­ing or allow the young per­son to remain at home. 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.

Begun almost three decades ago as a pilot project to reduce reliance on local con­fine­ment of court-involved youth, 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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