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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