Youth Detention and the Pandemic

New Data Show the Role of Race and Place

Posted August 3, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A young Black man sits in a detention setting. His face blurred, he reclines on a cot with his hand on his head in a motion of distress.

The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion’s Chang­ing Course in Youth Deten­tion: Revers­ing Widen­ing Gaps by Race and Place expos­es the large and widen­ing gaps in youth deten­tion by race and place. The report com­pris­es three years of research from the Foun­da­tion and tracks the effects of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic on juve­nile jus­tice systems.

Charts and analy­sis show that, depend­ing on their race and the region and juris­dic­tion in which they reside, young peo­ple in the Unit­ed States live in dif­fer­ent real­i­ties when it comes to the odds of being detained. The dis­pro­por­tion­ate use of deten­tion for Black youth — already dis­tress­ing­ly high before the pan­dem­ic — has increased sub­stan­tial­ly. Also, over that three-year peri­od, local and region­al dif­fer­ences in the use of deten­tion have increased dra­mat­i­cal­ly, a reminder that most deci­sions about youth deten­tion are made locally.

Down­load the Find­ings and Analysis

The Pandemic’s Effects on Youth Justice

The data from Casey’s month­ly sur­vey dur­ing this peri­od offer an unpar­al­leled glimpse into hun­dreds of juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems around the coun­try. The Foun­da­tion observed sig­nif­i­cant and con­cern­ing changes — espe­cial­ly for Black youth:

  • As of Jan­u­ary 1, 2023, Black youth were almost 10 times more like­ly to be detained than their white peers. Pri­or to the pan­dem­ic, Black youth were detained at more than six times the rate of white youth.
  • The over­all deten­tion pop­u­la­tion rose to its pre­vi­ous lev­el, with the pop­u­la­tion of Black youth sur­pass­ing its old lev­el. Even though the rate of admis­sions to deten­tion cen­ters is still much low­er for Black, His­pan­ic and white youth than it was before the pan­dem­ic, the pop­u­la­tion has rebound­ed and even sur­passed its pre-pan­dem­ic lev­el for Black youth.
  • Local dif­fer­ences in the use of deten­tion have increased dra­mat­i­cal­ly. When com­par­ing the third of sites with the biggest increas­es in deten­tion over the past three years to the sites with the biggest decreas­es, the data showed one group had slashed its use of deten­tion by almost 30% while the oth­er had a 60% increase.
  • Sur­vey juris­dic­tions in the Mid­west have had the largest increas­es since the pand­me­ic. A com­par­i­son of trends by region shows that sur­veyed sites in the Mid­west, which already had high­er rates of deten­tion than those in oth­er regions before the pan­dem­ic, had a deten­tion rate 60% high­er than those in oth­er regions in Jan­u­ary 2020. Three years lat­er, that gap had grown to 80%.

Address­ing Youth Deten­tion Racial Disparities

These find­ings on the well-being of thou­sands of young peo­ple are alarm­ing. The sys­tems’ capac­i­ty to man­age deten­tion cen­ters safe­ly is already stretched to the lim­it, and its gate­keep­ers are dri­ving detained pop­u­la­tions — dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black — high­er. Deten­tion pos­es real dan­gers to young peo­ple and is an inef­fec­tive response to crime. One peer-reviewed study con­clud­ed that pre­tri­al juve­nile deten­tion increas­es the odds of felony recidi­vism by 33%. Even a short stay in deten­tion is asso­ci­at­ed with seri­ous harm to young people’s men­tal and phys­i­cal well-being, their edu­ca­tion and employ­ment prospects and their risk of fur­ther jus­tice sys­tem involvement.

Con­text mat­ters, and it must be acknowl­edged that the sur­vey was con­duct­ed dur­ing a tumul­tuous three-year peri­od. Against that back­drop, it would be easy to assume that the growth in youth deten­tion is just one more symp­tom of a soci­ety under stress — a regret­table, but inevitable, sign of the times.

But high­er deten­tion pop­u­la­tions are not inevitable — and the evi­dence for this is in the find­ings. Juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems can take action to align poli­cies and prac­tices to ensure young peo­ple are detained only as a last resort and no longer than nec­es­sary. These reforms will con­tribute to improved safe­ty and oppor­tu­ni­ty in our com­mu­ni­ties, increased fair­ness and effi­ca­cy in our jus­tice sys­tem and high­er prospects for a brighter future for our children.

Down­load the Report

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