Young people held in juvenile detention facilities should be released when possible to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, two leaders of juvenile advocacy groups said Tuesday.
“Kids don’t need to be locked up right now,” said Ricky Watson, executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network. “They should be at home.”
Watson, along with Naomi Smoot, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, spoke at a special webinar called to brief juvenile justice workers and advocates around the country on measures underway to alleviate the impact of the coronavirus crisis on justice-involved youth.
In a parallel effort, the Justice Action Network, a bipartisan lobby group, released a letter late Tuesday urging Senate leaders to speed passage of a bill that facilitates the release of “vulnerable” elderly inmates.
“This population—already one of the most vulnerable to COVID-19—faces far greater risks in the densely overpopulated and understaffed prison environment,” said the letter, signed by a bipartisan coalition of 43 groups.
“The human cost would be reprehensible.”
The bill, H.R. 4018, provides additional “technical” changes to the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program, passed under the First Step Act, which transfers nonviolent federal inmates aged 60 or over to home confinement if they have served two-thirds of their sentence.
Youth at Risk
Although many states are taking steps to protect inmates in adult facilities, the youth advocates warned against ignoring the dangers to incarcerated youth, many of whom suffer from “co-morbidities” which weaken their immune systems and are therefore vulnerable to infection in crowded detention facilities, they said.
“We have to make sure kids are not left out” of the federal conversation about safeguarding incarcerated populations, said Smoot.
Despite the increasing closures of juvenile detention facilities around the country, an estimated 48,000 young people are behind bars on any given night, including 5,000 who are locked up in adult facilities. An additional 283,600 are on probation.
The advocates said releasing detained young people should be part of a series of emergency steps taken to reduce both the exposure to disease and any psychological stress caused if they are put into quarantine.
The additional measures they called for included:
- Limiting or suspending fees charged for telephone and video services inside facilities to maximize communication between the young people and their families;
- An expansion of e-learning capabilities inside youth facilities and more access to books and materials when online technology isn’t available;
- Regular health checks, and testing of young people who show symptoms of coronavirus before releasing them into the community;
- Assurance that sanitizer, hand towels and other hygienic cleansing materials are available in sufficient quantities at youth facilities.
They also called for more viral test kits to be made available for detained youth, as well as staff and volunteers.
The recommendations for handling youths on probation mirrored a similar call Tuesday by leaders of probation and parole agencies across the country for protection of adults under community supervision during the pandemic.
Video chats should replace personal visits with youth probation officers, and juvenile courts should relax penalties for minor violations of probation terms or “failures to appear”— which may have been the result of barriers caused by lockdowns or curfews imposed during the crisis, the advocates said.
More than 700 juvenile caregivers and advocates participated in Tuesday’s webinar. They shared examples of jurisdictions around the country that have already taken steps to reduce the exposure of youths.
- A county in upstate New York has postponed most juvenile court proceedings until May;
- In Utah, young people are now allowed to meet probation officers in video chats;
- Philadelphia has expanded telemedia facilities for youth detention centers.
The decision to quarantine infected or symptomatic youth should also receive particular attention to avoid the additional stress of what amounts to “de facto solitary,” the youth advocates said.
Efforts should be made to allow quarantined young people to safely receive visitors.
“Screen visitors, but don’t bar them,” said Watson.
The special situation created by the pandemic brings into sharper relief the fact that many young people shouldn’t be forced into the justice system in the first place for relatively minor infractions and delinquent behavior, Smoot said.
“The over-arrest and over-incarceration of young people is compounded by worries about the coronavirus,” she said. “This is an opportunity to point out that that putting kids in a facility isn’t the right answer.”
In a statement accompanying the letter calling for release of elderly inmates, Holly Harris, president and executive director of Justice Action Network, called it a “matter of life and death.”
“As coronavirus spreads rapidly across the country and leaders take action to protect American lives, incarcerated people – particularly the elderly – remain trapped in a system teetering on the edge of a large-scale outbreak,” Hollis said. .
“For them, it’s a matter of life and death.”