The Number of Youth in Secure Detention Returns to Pre-Pandemic Levels

“The New Normal” or “The Old Status Quo?”

Posted August 16, 2022
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Young Black mail sitting on steps resting his head on his hands

A month­ly sur­vey of youth jus­tice agen­cies by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion finds that the dra­mat­ic drop in youth deten­tion that accom­pa­nied the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has evap­o­rat­ed. After hav­ing fall­en as much as 30% in the first few months of the pan­dem­ic, the num­ber of youth held in juve­nile deten­tion had risen almost to its pre-pan­dem­ic aver­age as of June 1, 2022 — and for Black youth, the num­ber detained was 6% high­er. In total, the June fig­ures rep­re­sent an increase of more than 40% since Jan­u­ary 2021 and 17% just since the start of 2022

More­over, although the youth deten­tion pop­u­la­tion is now sim­i­lar in size to what it was before the pan­dem­ic, sig­nif­i­cant and con­cern­ing changes have occurred beneath the surface:

  • The dis­pro­por­tion­ate use of deten­tion for Black youth — already dis­tress­ing­ly high before the pan­dem­ic — has increased. From Jan­u­ary to March 2020 (the months just before the pan­dem­ic) Black youth were detained at more than six times the rate of white youth. Since then, that dis­par­i­ty has widened — both when the over­all youth deten­tion pop­u­la­tion was falling through ear­ly 2021, and when it was ris­ing over the past 15 months. As a result, from April 2022 to June 2022, Black youth were detained at eight times the rate of white youth.
  • Deten­tion stays have grown longer. A pro­tract­ed slow­down in releas­ing youth from deten­tion since the ear­ly days of the pan­dem­ic has kept the detained pop­u­la­tion high­er than it should be — almost 40% high­er as of June 1, 2022. The release rate slowed much more for Black youth than for white youth in 2021 and 2022 —lead­ing direct­ly to the wors­en­ing racial dis­par­i­ties in who is detained overall.
  • Juris­dic­tions that had sim­i­lar pat­terns of deten­tion use before the pan­dem­ic began have adopt­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent pat­terns over the course of the pan­dem­ic. As a result, the one-third of sur­vey sites that have reduced deten­tion the most have sus­tained a 37% reduc­tion from their pre-pan­dem­ic aver­age. In con­trast, the one-third of sites that have increased deten­tion the most have seen a 56% increase, all of which has occurred in the past 13 months (since May 2021).

Giv­en that even a short stay in deten­tion can have pro­found and poten­tial­ly life­long neg­a­tive con­se­quences for the young peo­ple involved, these find­ings raise alarms for the well-being of thou­sands of young peo­ple and chal­lenge juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems across the coun­try to detain young peo­ple as a last resort.

The find­ings come at a time when many prac­ti­tion­ers are report­ing height­ened con­cerns about safe­ty in their com­mu­ni­ties or con­cerns about ris­ing youth crime. The sur­vey find­ings, how­ev­er, do not indi­cate a surge of young peo­ple com­ing into deten­tion across the board,” says Nate Balis, direc­tor of the Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. The data don’t give us rea­son to believe that ris­ing crime explains over­all pop­u­la­tion gains in deten­tion. In fact, the rate of admis­sions is con­sid­er­ably low­er in 2022 than it was in the ear­ly months of 2020.” 

Charts and Find­ings on Youth Detention

After a rapid decline when the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic hit in the spring of 2020, the youth deten­tion pop­u­la­tion began ris­ing in spring 2021 and has returned to its pre-pan­dem­ic lev­el in sum­mer 2022.

When the pan­dem­ic began in March 2020, the num­ber of detained youths in sur­vey sites plunged from an aver­age of more than 3,500 from Jan­u­ary to March 2020, to just 2,514 in May 2020 — a drop of almost 30% in just nine weeks. Through the school clos­ings and racial reck­on­ing of the next 12 months, the pop­u­la­tion stayed close to that low lev­el through May 2021. But the pop­u­la­tion has grown more than 30% since then (40% since Jan­u­ary 2021) and 17% just since the start of 2022. On June 1, 2022, there were 3,346 young peo­ple in deten­tion in sur­vey sites — slight­ly high­er than the Jan­u­ary 1, 2020, pop­u­la­tion of 3,331.

Youth Detention Population on First Day of Each Month

The rate of admis­sions to deten­tion cen­ters is still much low­er than it was before the pan­dem­ic. The pop­u­la­tion has returned to its old lev­el because young peo­ple are stay­ing in deten­tion longer.

The rate of admis­sions to deten­tion has dropped by 30% since the begin­ning of 2020. That reduc­tion has not result­ed in a small­er deten­tion pop­u­la­tion, because of a slow­down in the pace of releas­es. In oth­er words, those young peo­ple who are get­ting detained in 2022 are stay­ing longer than youth who were detained before March 2020. The slow­down in releas­es has ful­ly off­set the reduc­tion in admis­sions, result­ing in a detained pop­u­la­tion that is rough­ly the same size it was before the pandemic.

Admissions Rate to Youth Detention
Release Rate From Youth Detention

The brisk pace of releas­es in March 2020 showed the system’s deci­sion-mak­ers were capa­ble of speedy case processing.

If youth jus­tice sys­tems had been able to main­tain the March 2020 release rate in the months since then, the detained pop­u­la­tion would have been 39% low­er on June 1, 2022. In oth­er words, rough­ly two of every five young peo­ple in deten­tion cen­ters on June 1, 2022, would not have been there if youth jus­tice sys­tems had main­tained the pace of releas­es that they achieved 26 months earlier.

Youth Detention Population First Day of Each Month

The slow­down in release rates of youth from deten­tion has fall­en espe­cial­ly hard on Black youth. As a result, the growth of youth deten­tion since its lows ear­ly in the pan­dem­ic has pre­dom­i­nant­ly affect­ed Black youth. 

On June 1, 2022, the num­ber of Black youths in deten­tion was 6% above its aver­age lev­el from Jan­u­ary to March 2020 (before the pan­dem­ic). The num­ber of white youths in deten­tion was 18% low­er than its pre-pan­dem­ic average. 

Youth Detention Population by Race and Ethnicity

This is not due to dif­fer­ences in the trend of admis­sions between Black and white youth, which have been sim­i­lar through­out the course of the sur­vey. Rather, the increas­ing dis­par­i­ty is due to the release rate slow­ing down much more for Black youth than for white youth. The release rate also slowed more for Lati­no youth than for white youth, but the slow­down has affect­ed Black youth most severely.

In the sur­vey juris­dic­tions that pro­vide deten­tion data dis­ag­gre­gat­ed by race and eth­nic­i­ty, Black youth were more than six times as like­ly to be in deten­tion than white youth before the pan­dem­ic. That dis­par­i­ty has grown when the total detained pop­u­la­tion was:

  • falling from ear­ly 2020 to ear­ly 2021; and
  • ris­ing from ear­ly 2021 to June of 2022.
Admissions Rate to Youth Detention by Race and Ethnicity
Release Rate From Youth Detention by Race and Ethnicity

Black youth account for 18% of the age 1017 pop­u­la­tion in sur­vey sites but account­ed for 68% of the growth in youth deten­tion from its post-pan­dem­ic low point in Jan­u­ary 2021 to June 2022.

Rate of Detention by Race per 100,000 Youth Ages 10 to 17

Over the course of the pan­dem­ic, juris­dic­tions that ini­tial­ly had sim­i­lar pat­terns of deten­tion use now look very dif­fer­ent from each other. 

Com­par­ing sur­vey sites that have seen the largest reduc­tions in deten­tion with those that have seen the largest increas­es reveals a large and widen­ing divide in the way that dif­fer­ent juris­dic­tions have respond­ed to the past two years. Adjust­ed for the size of their youth pop­u­la­tions, these sites entered the pan­dem­ic with sim­i­lar rates of deten­tion, sim­i­lar admis­sions rates and sim­i­lar release rates. But the paths they have tak­en since then have been strik­ing­ly dissimilar. 

  • At the start of the pan­dem­ic, almost all sur­vey sites report­ed steep drops in admis­sions. The one-third of sites with the largest reduc­tions in deten­tion use sus­tained that drop in admis­sions, while keep­ing the pace of releas­es close to pre-pan­dem­ic lev­els. As a result, as of June 1, 2022, these sites had slashed their detained pop­u­la­tions by 37% below their pre-pan­dem­ic average. 
  • The third of sites with the largest increas­es in deten­tion did not sus­tain the drop in admis­sions. Even more notably, their pace of releas­es slowed down sub­stan­tial­ly. Con­se­quent­ly, they were detain­ing 56% more young peo­ple on June 1, 2022, than they did before the pandemic.
Detention Population per 100,000 Youth Ages 10 to 17 by Site Type
Admissions Rate to Youth Detention by Site Type
Release Rate From Youth Detention by Site Type

All the dif­fer­ences in deten­tion use across these groups of sites as of June 2022 emerged over the past 26 months, based on dif­fer­ent local choic­es about how to respond to con­di­tions that have affect­ed almost every com­mu­ni­ty dur­ing the pan­dem­ic era.

The big ques­tion ear­ly in the pan­dem­ic and fol­low­ing George Floyd’s mur­der in 2020 was whether there had become a new nor­mal for juve­nile jus­tice of dra­mat­i­cal­ly few­er youth in deten­tion and greater equi­ty among Black, Lati­no and white youth,” Balis says. Over two years lat­er, we’re see­ing that progress take hold for a third of the places in our sur­vey. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, for anoth­er third of places, we’re see­ing trends worse than the old sta­tus quo: more youth admit­ted to deten­tion, more youth stay­ing longer in deten­tion and Black youth feel­ing the brunt of both.”

About the 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. This analy­sis is based on reports from 123 juris­dic­tions in 32 states, rep­re­sent­ing 26% of the nation’s youth pop­u­la­tion (ages 1017), for which data have been sub­mit­ted for every month from Jan­u­ary 2020 through June 2022. For the num­bers that are dis­ag­gre­gat­ed by race, the analy­sis is based on reports for 116 juris­dic­tions across 31 states con­tain­ing 24% of the youth pop­u­la­tion. The Month­ly Deten­tion Sur­vey rep­re­sents a non-ran­dom sam­ple of youth jus­tice sys­tems in the Unit­ed States, and aggre­gates from this sur­vey should not be regard­ed as nation­al estimates.

Read more about how the sur­vey is con­duct­ed and see pre­vi­ous data releases

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