Changing Course in Youth Detention

Reversing Widening Gaps by Race and Place

Posted August 3, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
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The Annie E. Casey Foundation has found large and widening gaps in youth detention by race and place in its three-year analysis of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on juvenile justice systems. When it comes to the odds of being detained, young people in the United States live in different worlds, depending on their race and the region and jurisdiction where they reside. The disproportionate use of detention for Black youth — already distressingly high before the pandemic — has increased. Also, over that three-year period, where youth lived mattered to a greater extent to their odds of being detained than it did before.

Unparalleled Look at the Pandemic’s Effects on Youth Justice

The data from Casey’s monthly survey offer an unparalleled glimpse into what’s been happening in juvenile justice systems around the country over the past three years. Nationwide, youth detention fell sharply at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; largely held at that low level for a year; and then steadily returned to its pre-pandemic level. After falling by as much as 30% in the first few months of the pandemic, the number of youth held in juvenile detention in survey sites on January 1, 2023 (3,436 young people), rose to almost exactly the level reported on January 1, 2020 (3,410 young people) — and was rapidly increasing.

Beneath the surface of that simple story, the Foundation observed significant and concerning changes, especially for Black youth:

  • Black youth were almost 10 times more likely to be detained than their white peers on January 1, 2023. Prior to the pandemic, Black youth were detained at more than six times the rate of white youth.
  • The overall population has returned to its old level and, for Black youth, surpassed it. 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. This has occurred because the young people in detention, especially Black youth, are spending longer in detention. Releases from detention have slowed down so much — and for so long — that the detained population remains higher than it should be (more than 70% higher as of January 1, 2023).
  • Local differences in the use of detention across states and localities have increased dramatically. Jurisdictions that had similar patterns of detention use at the start of 2020 adopted vastly different patterns over the course of the pandemic. One group of sites saw detention use spike by 60% while another saw the use of detention fall by nearly 30%.
  • Survey jurisdictions in the Midwest, which already had higher rates of detention than those in other regions before the pandemic, have had the largest increases since then. Using the U.S. Census Bureau’s definitions of Midwest, Northeast, South and West, a comparison of trends by region shows that survey sites in the Midwest had a detention rate 60% higher than those in other regions in January 2020. Three years later, that gap had grown to 80%. Racial and ethnic disparities were highest in the Northeast before the pandemic and increased even more than other regions, mostly due to a severe slowdown in the pace of releases for Black youth.

Time is Ripe for Sustained Urgency and Attention to Youth Detention

These findings are a cause for alarm. In addition to being an ineffective response to crime, detention poses concrete dangers to young people. Even a short stay in detention has been associated with serious harm to a youth's mental and physical well-being, stifled education and employment prospects and further justice system involvement. Such dangers grow even more acute when detention centers lack sufficient well-trained staff.

Context matters. This survey occurred during a tumultuous three-year period, marred by the deadly and disruptive COVID-19 pandemic; nationwide racial justice protests; highly contentious school closures and reopenings; the erosion of public trust in institutions; a sobering rise in mass casualties by firearms; and increasing levels of mental health distress, especially for young people. 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 themselves. A third of the jurisdictions the Foundation studied have sustained and deepened reductions in detention by almost 30% below their pre-pandemic levels. Their continuing success over the past three years affirms that substantial reforms remain possible even in challenging times, when the reforms are pursued with sustained urgency and attention.

Call to Action by Youth Justice Leaders

The data from this survey strongly suggest that the juvenile justice system has emerged from the pandemic era profoundly changed, and in ways that should leave us all deeply concerned and motivated to do better. The surge in the use of youth detention in many parts of the country and the huge and growing racial disparities everywhere are crises that demand immediate action from youth justice system leaders.

These trends are reversible if youth justice leaders heed the research and evidence of what works to help young people reach their potential — especially young people facing steep obstacles to success. Removing youth from their homes and routines and isolating them from their natural support systems make things worse, not better.

The following recommendations highlight actions that juvenile justice systems can take — and many are taking — to align policies and practices to ensure young people are detained only as a last resort and no longer than necessary:

  • maximize diversion from formal court processing for the vast majority of cases;
  • expand availability and access to detention alternatives that allow young people to remain in and return to their communities;
  • expedite releases from detention for young people and accelerate the pace of case processing to at least pre-pandemic levels so that fewer young people are stuck in detention in the future;
  • invest in partnerships with community-based organizations to increase public safety, promote youth development and bring healing to those who have been harmed, without resorting to legal system involvement;
  • pursue all these strategies with an explicit, urgent focus on eliminating the disproportionate detention of Black youth, who have borne the brunt of the backsliding that has occurred in many places since the pandemic; and
  • respond to the growing detention population and surging racial disparity crises with a level of concern that demands compassion, commitment, collaboration and creativity.

These actions could improve safety and opportunity in our communities, fairness and efficacy in our justice system, and prospects for a brighter future for our children.

Findings & Stats

Statements & Quotations

Key Takeaway

Twin crises are rocking the youth detention landscape in the wake of the pandemic

When it comes to the odds of being detained, young people in the United States live in different worlds depending on their race as well as the region and jurisdiction where they reside. The disproportionate use of detention for Black youth — already distressingly high before the pandemic — has increased. In addition, where youth lived impacted their risk of detainment more than before the pandemic.

These findings sound an alarm for the well-being of thousands of young people. Pretrial juvenile detention is an ineffective response to crime and poses concrete dangers to young people. Even a short detainment can harm a young people’s mental and physical well-being, hinder their education and employment prospects and increase their risk of further justice system involvement.