Survey: More Youth in Secure Detention Despite Rise of COVID-19

Posted February 16, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
More young people were held in detention on Dec. 1, 2020, than in the early months of the pandemic, and a greater share of those young people were Black and Latino.

A sur­vey by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion of youth jus­tice agen­cies in 34 states finds COVID-19 cas­es surg­ing in secure deten­tion facil­i­ties in late 2020. More young peo­ple were held in juve­nile deten­tion on Dec. 1, 2020 — the most recent data avail­able — than in the ear­ly months of the pan­dem­ic, and a greater share of those young peo­ple were Black and Lati­no, as a result of wors­en­ing dis­par­i­ties in how sys­tems made deci­sions about detain­ing youth.

The sur­vey, con­duct­ed each month since the pan­dem­ic began in March, is aimed at assess­ing the effects of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic on juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems around the coun­try, with some notable trends in the sec­ond half of 2020.

  • Active COVID-19 cas­es among staff and youth in deten­tion facil­i­ties more than dou­bled by mid-Decem­ber to 168 cas­es for youth and 426 cas­es for staff — lev­els nev­er seen before in this survey.
  • Despite wide­spread knowl­edge of pub­lic health risks and ear­ly momen­tum to get youth out of deten­tion and keep them out, the num­ber of young peo­ple in deten­tion grew by 8% in the sec­ond half of 2020, from July 1 to Dec. 1.
  • Dur­ing every month since April, the pace of releas­es from youth deten­tion has been slow­er than before the pan­dem­ic. In fact, November’s pace set a six-month low.
  • Black and Lati­no youth are lin­ger­ing in deten­tion even longer than white youth are.

It’s uncon­scionable that young peo­ple are lan­guish­ing in deten­tion dur­ing a pan­dem­ic, and that there are clear pat­terns show­ing that Black and Lati­no youth are bear­ing the brunt of our lack of urgency in get­ting young peo­ple safe­ly home,” said Nate Balis, direc­tor of the Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. All young peo­ple deserve time­ly jus­tice, espe­cial­ly as COVID-19 surges in facilities.”

Key Find­ings From the Juve­nile Jus­tice Survey


COVID-19 was more preva­lent among youth and staff in deten­tion facil­i­ties than at any point in the survey’s his­to­ry.

By Dec. 15, active COVID-19 cas­es among staff and youth in deten­tion facil­i­ties had dou­bled from the pre­vi­ous month for both youth and staff. For staff, the num­ber jumped from 213 to 424 cas­es. For youth, the num­ber jumped from 78 to 168 cases.


After declin­ing sharply in the ear­ly months of the pan­dem­ic, the pop­u­la­tion in youth deten­tion increased in the sec­ond half of 2020, ris­ing by 8% between July 1 and Dec. 1.

The size of the pop­u­la­tion is dri­ven by two fac­tors: the num­ber of young peo­ple admit­ted to deten­tion and how quick­ly they are released. Each trend is exam­ined sep­a­rate­ly in the find­ings below.

The overall population in youth detention

Deten­tion admis­sions fell more than 50% in the first two months of the pan­dem­ic. But ris­ing admis­sions have erased over a quar­ter of those ear­ly gains.

Admis­sions to deten­tion have been on an upward tra­jec­to­ry since April, with the excep­tion of a 13% drop between Octo­ber and November.

Admissions to youth detention

The pace of deten­tion releas­es accel­er­at­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly in March, but slowed in April and has lagged behind pre-pan­dem­ic lev­els every month since then.

The pan­dem­ic has giv­en jus­tice sys­tems every incen­tive to move cas­es faster and get young peo­ple sit­ting in deten­tion home,” Balis said. While the mag­ni­tude of the imme­di­ate response was encour­ag­ing, the urgency hasn’t been sus­tained and is actu­al­ly get­ting worse.

Pace of releases from juvenile detention

One of every three youths in deten­tion on Dec. 1 would not have remained con­fined had juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems con­tin­ued the high­er rate of releas­es they processed ear­ly in the pan­dem­ic.

Had the release rate stayed at its high of 65% in March, more than one-third few­er young peo­ple would have been held in deten­tion on Decem­ber 1.

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


Over the course of the pan­dem­ic, Black and Lati­no youth are rep­re­sent­ing an increas­ing­ly larg­er share of the total deten­tion population.

The racial and eth­nic gap in pop­u­la­tion reduc­tions that began to emerge in August per­sist­ed through Dec. 1. Com­pared with the pre-pan­dem­ic pop­u­la­tion on Mar. 1, the pop­u­la­tion on Dec. 1 was down 21% for Lati­no youth, 24% for Black youth and 33% for white youth.

Youth detention population by race

Dis­par­i­ties in the detained pop­u­la­tion are get­ting worse because Black and Lati­no youth are stay­ing in deten­tion longer than they were before the pan­dem­ic and longer than white youth.

In fact, Black and Lati­no youth are slow­er to be released than their white peers (10% and 8% slow­er, respec­tive­ly, in the month of Novem­ber), and the gap favor­ing white youth has grown larg­er than it was before the pan­dem­ic began.

Pace of releases from youth detention by race

Had juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems con­tin­ued to release all youth as quick­ly as they released white youth in March, then there would have been 37% few­er white youth, 58% few­er Black youth and 55% few­er Lati­no youth in deten­tion on Dec. 1.

Releas­ing youth of col­or at the same rate as white youth would sub­stan­tial­ly reduce the detained pop­u­la­tion over­all,” Balis said.

About the Survey

To under­stand the effects of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic on youth deten­tion pop­u­la­tions, the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion has been sur­vey­ing juve­nile jus­tice agen­cies across the coun­try every month since April 2020 and report­ing on youth deten­tion trends. This sur­vey is unique because it cap­tures data in close to real time from a large group of juris­dic­tions that span all regions of the Unit­ed States and range from large urban coun­ties to small rur­al courts. In a typ­i­cal month, the Foun­da­tion receives data from more than 150 juris­dic­tions in more than 30 states, con­tain­ing more than 30% of the nation’s youth pop­u­la­tion (ages 10 to 17).

The lat­est results cov­er the peri­od from Jan­u­ary 1 to Decem­ber 1, 2020 and are from a sur­vey con­duct­ed between Decem­ber 9, 2020 through Jan­u­ary 21, 2021. Youth jus­tice agen­cies in 34 states sub­mit­ted respons­es. Respond­ing sites col­lec­tive­ly held 4,477 young peo­ple in secure deten­tion on March 1, 2020. For per­spec­tive, nation­al­ly approx­i­mate­ly 15,660 young peo­ple were held in deten­tion on any giv­en night, accord­ing to the most recent fed­er­al data from 2017.

Find a set of ques­tions that can help juve­nile jus­tice lead­ers reduce youth detention

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