Youth Detention Admissions Increase After Dramatic Decrease Early in Pandemic

Posted November 8, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Juvenile detentions are increasing five months into the pandemic.

A sur­vey of youth jus­tice agen­cies in 34 states — con­duct­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion — finds that admis­sions to youth deten­tion cen­ters are increas­ing, par­tial­ly revers­ing dra­mat­ic declines in the first months of the pan­dem­ic and wors­en­ing racial and eth­nic disparities.

The steep­est drop in deten­tion admis­sions occurred in the first month of the pan­dem­ic. But from April to August 2020, admis­sions have crept up. Although admis­sions per day are far below their pre-pan­dem­ic lev­el, the upward trend is con­cern­ing. Through­out that five-month peri­od, dai­ly admis­sions were high­est for Black youth and increas­ing the fastest for Lati­no youth com­pared to oth­er racial and eth­nic groups, includ­ing white youth.

Admis­sions is one fac­tor in the num­ber of youth in deten­tion. The oth­er is how quick­ly youth are released from deten­tion. High­er admis­sions and a slow­er release rate meant that between August and Sep­tem­ber alone, the deten­tion pop­u­la­tion increased by 5%.

Youth detention population in the United States (January 1 through September 1, 2020)

Juve­nile jus­tice agency lead­ers should be ask­ing them­selves what’s dri­ving the increase in admis­sions to deten­tion and longer lengths of stay in deten­tion, espe­cial­ly for youth of col­or,” says Nate Balis, direc­tor of the Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group.

Deten­tion cen­ters are dif­fer­ent than youth pris­ons or oth­er res­i­den­tial place­ments where young peo­ple could be sen­tenced after being adju­di­cat­ed delin­quent. Rather, 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 their court hear­ing or while await­ing place­ment into a cor­rec­tion­al or treat­ment facil­i­ty rather than allow­ing the young per­son to remain at home.

Every year, an esti­mat­ed 195,000 young peo­ple spend time in deten­tion facil­i­ties nation­wide, despite the neg­a­tive effects of deten­tion on young peo­ple — includ­ing like­ly deep­er sys­tem involve­ment, sep­a­ra­tion from their fam­i­lies, health risks and a derailed edu­ca­tion — and per­sis­tent racial dis­par­i­ties in who is detained.

Key Find­ings From the Juve­nile Jus­tice Survey

These trends are reflect­ed in a Casey Foun­da­tion sur­vey of juris­dic­tions around the coun­try aimed at assess­ing the effects of the pan­dem­ic on juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems through Sep­tem­ber 12020.

The pop­u­la­tion rose by 8% for Black youth, 4% for Lati­no youth and 2% for white youth from August 1 to Sep­tem­ber 1.

The over­all pop­u­la­tion in youth deten­tion grew by 5% between August and Sep­tem­ber. Among juris­dic­tions that pro­vid­ed infor­ma­tion dis­ag­gre­gat­ed by race and eth­nic­i­ty, Black youth fared worst (with an 8% increase in deten­tion) com­pared to white and Lati­no youth, whose deten­tion pop­u­la­tion grew 2% and 4%, respectively.

Two fac­tors con­tribute to pop­u­la­tion gains: high­er admis­sions and longer lengths of stay for youth already in deten­tion. Between April and August, there has been a steady increase in admis­sions to deten­tion per day. Also, young peo­ple were released from deten­tion more slow­ly than they were pri­or to the pandemic.

Juvenile detention admissions and releases by month (2020)

Admis­sions per day are increas­ing, espe­cial­ly for youth of color.

In the first month of the pan­dem­ic, admis­sions per day fell more sharply among Black youth than white youth, 55% ver­sus 50% respec­tive­ly from Feb­ru­ary to April. But those ear­ly gains erod­ed from April to August. Dur­ing the more recent peri­od, admis­sions per day were clos­er to their pre-pan­dem­ic lev­el for Black youth than they were for white youth, 41% below ver­sus 43%.

These pat­terns have been even more adverse for Lati­no youth. Admis­sions per day for Lati­no youth fell 50% from Feb­ru­ary to April. But more than a quar­ter of that reduc­tion was erased over the next four months. In August, the rate of admis­sions per day for Lati­no youth was 36% below the pre-pan­dem­ic lev­el, the small­est decrease among the three racial and eth­nic cat­e­gories (Black, Lati­no and white) that have account­ed for rough­ly 94% of admis­sions in every month of this survey.

Change in juvenile detention admission rates by race from February 2020 to August 2020

Young peo­ple are being released from deten­tion more slow­ly than they were pri­or to the pandemic.

The release rate (the per­cent­age of all young peo­ple who were in deten­tion at any point dur­ing a month who were released before the end of that month) is an indi­ca­tor of how quick­ly young peo­ple are released from deten­tion. The high­er the release rate, the short­er the stays in deten­tion, on aver­age. Over the last three months, from June to August, the release rate hov­ered around 54%, down from 65% in March when the pan­dem­ic first hit, and close to 60% in the pre-pan­dem­ic months of Jan­u­ary and February.

One of every three youths in deten­tion on Sept. 1, 2020 would not have been in deten­tion if the release rate had stayed at its March level.

Had the release rate in August stayed at the March rate of 65%, far few­er young peo­ple would have been held in deten­tion on Sept. 1, 2020. The actu­al pop­u­la­tion as of Sept. 1 was 3,152; it would have been more than one-third low­er — just 2,014 — if the March rate had been maintained.

Comparison of actual juvenile detention population versus consistent March release rate (2020)

Equi­tably increas­ing the release rate would sub­stan­tial­ly reduce the detained pop­u­la­tion, espe­cial­ly for youth of color.

Youth of col­or are released from deten­tion more slow­ly than white youth, which is one of the rea­sons that youth of col­or are over­rep­re­sent­ed in the deten­tion pop­u­la­tion. Among juris­dic­tions that pro­vid­ed infor­ma­tion dis­ag­gre­gat­ed by race and eth­nic­i­ty, the dis­par­i­ty in release rates has grown since the pan­dem­ic. In Jan­u­ary and Feb­ru­ary, the release rate for youth of col­or was 7% low­er than the rate for white youth. By August, the gap had widened to more than 12% low­er. If all youth had been released in every post-pan­dem­ic month as quick­ly as white youth were released in March, then the pop­u­la­tion would have been 38% low­er for white youth and 53% low­er for non-white youth.

About the Survey

Work­ing with the Pre­tri­al Jus­tice Insti­tute and Empact Solu­tions, the Foun­da­tion first col­lect­ed data just weeks after the coro­n­avirus arrived in the Unit­ed States.

The juris­dic­tions respond­ing to the lat­est sur­vey are home to rough­ly 30% of the U.S. youth pop­u­la­tion, ages 10 to 17. Most of the respond­ing com­mu­ni­ties are involved in the Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive® (JDAI), a net­work of juve­nile jus­tice prac­ti­tion­ers and oth­er sys­tem stake­hold­ers across the coun­try work­ing to build a bet­ter and more equi­table youth jus­tice system.

This sur­vey, con­duct­ed from Sep­tem­ber 9 to 24 and cov­er­ing the peri­od from Jan­u­ary 1 to Sep­tem­ber 1, is unique because it reports on data from hun­dreds of juris­dic­tions in close to real time. Infor­ma­tion came from large urban coun­ties and small rur­al courts, among a wide range of juris­dic­tions that col­lec­tive­ly held 4,355 young peo­ple in secure deten­tion on March 1, 2020. For per­spec­tive, approx­i­mate­ly 15,660 young peo­ple were held in deten­tion nation­al­ly on any giv­en night, accord­ing to the most recent fed­er­al data from 2017.

There are no direct points of com­par­i­son that place this data in con­text. Avail­able data on deten­tion uti­liza­tion from nation­al sur­veys indi­cate that sig­nif­i­cant changes in deten­tion typ­i­cal­ly accrue over sev­er­al years.

This is a non-ran­dom sam­ple, so it is not an accu­rate source from which to derive nation­al esti­mates nor to deter­mine sta­tis­ti­cal­ly how rep­re­sen­ta­tive this group of juris­dic­tions is of the nation as a whole. While there is over­lap, the pool of juris­dic­tions reply­ing to a month­ly sur­vey is unique to that sur­vey alone, so month­ly results can­not be direct­ly com­pared. All of the data are self-report­ed by the par­tic­i­pat­ing jurisdictions.

Learn how juve­nile jus­tice lead­ers can reduce youth detention

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