Advocates have been working to get kids out of the juvenile justice system for years, and their fight has only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, given that detention facilities are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus. And new numbers are an encouraging sign for the continued fight ahead.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation and Pretrial Justice Institute and Empact Solutions recently surveyed juvenile justice agencies in 30 states; they found the number of young people in local secure detention centers fell by 24 percent in March 2020 — a massive decrease that matches the national decline over seven years, from 2010 to 2017.
The survey, which covers approximately one-tenth of the counties in the United States, focuses on detention centers, which is where young people stay while their court hearing is pending or while they await placement into a correctional or treatment facility. Every year, about 218,000 young people spend time in detention facilities, but that number has been decreasing each year, the Foundation found. But this might be one of the largest decreases in just one month, and is mostly due to a decrease in the number of youth who were admitted to the detention centers to begin with.
Nate Balis, the director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, told MTV News that decrease in admissions could be due to anything from a reduction in arrests overall; a reduction in arrests in schools specifically, given so many schools closed in March; a decrease in probation violations; and/or the possibility that judges and other people who are making the decision whether or not to admit a young person are scrutinizing those decisions more closely.
“In general, there are plenty of reasons why we should avoid the use of detention whenever possible,” Balis said. “In this particular time, on top of all of those other reasons… this setting is especially vulnerable to the spread of this virus.”
According to the Prison Policy Institute, the largest share of youth who are incarcerated are held in detention centers, and while the National Institute of Corrections dictates that “the purpose of juvenile detention is to confine only those youth who are serious, violent, or chronic offenders... pending legal action,” many of the youth held in detention centers are there for low-level offenses.
To say that those centers can have an adverse effect on young people is an understatement. “Juvenile detention is not a good setting for young people,” Balis said. “Young people should, whenever possible, be home with their families.” Overall, he believes that society “can provide better services and support for young people in the community than we can in the detention setting. Detention separates young people from their families, it separates them from school, it separates them from their communities.”
“I think these data give us an opportunity to talk about what's actually happening in detention centers right now and to ask more questions, including the questions that this data can't answer,” Balis said, adding that while he sees this as an overwhelmingly positive outcome, there are plenty of questions that the data leaves unanswered. At the time, it’s not known if the declines are happening equitably by race, or if the declines are actually increasing racial disparities; a report from 2019 found that 42 percent of boys and 35 percent of girls in juvenile justice facilities are Black.
And this matters, because the coronavirus appears to be hurting Black Americans disproportionately more than their white counterparts, according to the Washington Post. Moreover, children in juvenile justice facilities are more likely to have compromised immune systems, and those facilities are often ill-equipped to handle medical outbreaks.
The fight to continue to ensure that fewer young people are placed in detention centers isn’t going to be over once the pandemic has eased. “Am I confident that after this we'll stick to the way things are working now and be scrutinizing detention decisions more closely? No, I'm not confident.” Balis said. “But I think that's the opportunity for all of us in this field, to make sure that that's what happens going forward.”