Youth Detention Admissions Remain Low, But Releases Stall Despite COVID-19

Posted July 9, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Youth detention survey for June 2020

While admis­sions to youth deten­tion con­tin­ued to fall dra­mat­i­cal­ly in the three months since the COVID-19 out­break in March 2020, a new sur­vey of juve­nile jus­tice agen­cies in 33 states shows that sys­tems slowed the pace of releas­ing young peo­ple from deten­tion, leav­ing many young peo­ple — dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black — still liv­ing in con­fine­ment with­out access to oppor­tu­ni­ties or con­nec­tions, and poten­tial­ly vul­ner­a­ble to the virus.

After a surge of releas­es in March, young peo­ple were less like­ly to be released from deten­tion in April and May than they were before the pan­dem­ic start­ed, the lat­est data col­lect­ed by the sur­vey showed. Over­all, the dra­mat­ic decline in admis­sions has reduced the youth deten­tion pop­u­la­tion by 27% since the pan­dem­ic began, but the pop­u­la­tion grew slight­ly in May. One of every three young peo­ple in deten­tion on June 1 would not have been in deten­tion if the release rate had stayed at its March level.

In the months since the pan­dem­ic emerged in March, the dis­par­i­ties in deten­tion that dis­ad­van­tage Black youth have got­ten worse, sole­ly because Black youth have been released at a slow­er rate than their white peers. While admis­sions among Black youth actu­al­ly fell a bit more than admis­sions among white youth, Black youth con­tin­ued to be over­rep­re­sent­ed in deten­tion because the widen­ing gap in the release rate is larg­er than any gains on the admis­sions side.

These data demon­strate how crit­i­cal it is for juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems not only to keep young peo­ple out of deten­tion facil­i­ties but also to act with urgency to get young peo­ple out,” says Nate Balis, direc­tor of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. A more equi­table youth jus­tice sys­tem requires intense focus on releas­ing Black youth from detention.”

A slow­er release rate means youth are stay­ing in deten­tion longer. The dan­gers of con­fine­ment were well known before the pan­dem­ic. The addi­tion­al risk of COVID-19 trans­mis­sion should make accel­er­at­ing releas­es the pri­or­i­ty for youth jus­tice sys­tems with respect to their use of secure detention.

These trends are reflect­ed in an Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion sur­vey of juris­dic­tions around the coun­try aimed at assess­ing the effects of the pan­dem­ic on juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems through June 1, 2020. 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 35% 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.

The Role of Deten­tion Cen­ters in Juve­nile Justice

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’s 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 218,000 young peo­ple spend time in deten­tion facil­i­ties nation­wide, despite the neg­a­tive effects of deten­tion on young peo­ple and per­sis­tent racial dis­par­i­ties in who is detained.

Key Find­ings From the Juve­nile Jus­tice Survey

The sur­vey find­ings include the following:

Secure deten­tion pop­u­la­tions, which had been falling since March, increased slight­ly in May due to too few releas­es of young peo­ple from deten­tion, not an influx of new admissions.

On June 1, 2020, the num­ber of young peo­ple in deten­tion was 27% below its pre-cri­sis lev­el but no longer falling month to month. If the pop­u­la­tion strict­ly fol­lowed the path of admis­sions, the pop­u­la­tion would be low­er than it is. But while the rate of admis­sions was plum­met­ing, the release rate decreased as well. As a result, the pop­u­la­tion increased 6% between May 1 and June 1.

The decrease in pop­u­la­tion was dri­ven pri­mar­i­ly by a steep decline in the rate of admissions.

In Feb­ru­ary, juris­dic­tions report­ed an aver­age of 207 admis­sions per day. But in April and May the aver­age was around 100 admis­sions per day ― half the pre-pan­dem­ic rate.

Juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems had increas­ing dif­fi­cul­ty releas­ing young peo­ple who were detained.

The release rate is 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. The high­er the release rate, the short­er stays in deten­tion are on aver­age. If the release rate is drop­ping, as it was in April and May, then young peo­ple are stay­ing longer. By May, the rate had slowed by 22% com­pared to its March high.

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

Had the release rate in April and May 2020 stayed at the March rate of 62%, then dra­mat­i­cal­ly few­er young peo­ple would have been held in deten­tion on June 1, 2020. The actu­al pop­u­la­tion as of June 1 was 3,267. It would have been one-third low­er, just 2,177, if the March rate were maintained.

Dis­par­i­ties in admis­sions improved for African Amer­i­can youth when the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem had a small­er footprint.

Among juris­dic­tions that pro­vid­ed infor­ma­tion dis­ag­gre­gat­ed by race and eth­nic­i­ty, only about one-fifth of detained young peo­ple are white, while more than half are African Amer­i­can and near­ly one-fourth are Lati­no. Over the first three months of the pan­dem­ic, admis­sions to juve­nile deten­tion have fall­en some­what pro­por­tion­al­ly by race: 54% for Black youth, 52% for white youth and 51% for Lati­no youth. But giv­en that youth of col­or were over­rep­re­sent­ed to start with, in absolute terms 78% of the decline in admis­sions was among youth of color.

Dis­par­i­ties in release rates that dis­ad­van­tage Black youth grew, which led to low­er over­all pop­u­la­tion declines for Black youth than for white youth.

White youth in deten­tion con­tin­ued to be more like­ly to be released than African Amer­i­can youth. Before COVID-19, the white release rate was about 7% high­er than the African Amer­i­can release rate. By May 2020 it was 17% high­er, mean­ing the gap had more than dou­bled in size. The widen­ing gap meant white youth expe­ri­enced a larg­er pop­u­la­tion drop than African Amer­i­can youth despite African Amer­i­can gains in admis­sions. The pop­u­la­tion decline between March 1 and June 1 was 30% for white youth and 27% for African Amer­i­can youth.

Most juris­dic­tions report­ed no cas­es of COVID-19 as of June

At the time of the sur­vey in June, 66% of the juris­dic­tions respond­ing said that they had access to infor­ma­tion about COVID-19 cas­es among youth and staff in deten­tion facil­i­ties. Among those with access to that infor­ma­tion, the vast major­i­ty (85%) report­ed no con­firmed or sus­pect­ed COVID-19 cas­es among their staff or youth.

Among the 15% that did, juris­dic­tions iden­ti­fied a total of 26 con­firmed or sus­pect­ed youth cas­es, and anoth­er 52 recov­ered youth, as of the date they com­plet­ed the sur­vey in June. The sur­vey was not designed to cal­cu­late COVID-19 preva­lence rates for indi­vid­ual facil­i­ties, but among juris­dic­tions report­ing any youth cas­es, the num­ber of con­firmed or sus­pect­ed youth cas­es was about 6% of their com­bined pop­u­la­tions as of June 1. Among staff, 55 con­firmed or sus­pect­ed cas­es and anoth­er 106 recov­ered cas­es were report­ed across 15 jurisdictions.

About the survey

This sur­vey, con­duct­ed from June 10 to 17 and cov­er­ing the peri­od from Jan­u­ary 1 to June 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 4,479 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 three-month reduc­tion 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 or 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.

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

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