Juvenile Agency Chiefs Join Calls to Release Jailed Youth

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Youth correctional administrators have joined juvenile justice advocates in calling for the immediate release of youths in juvenile detention facilities to protect them from the coronavirus.

Stepping up a massive nationwide lobbying blitz that began earlier this week, nearly 30 former and current heads of juvenile agencies warned that the 43,000 young people currently in custody are among those at highest risk to contract COVID-19.

“The experience of incarceration, which we know is incredibly damaging to young people in the best of circumstances, just got worse,” said Gladys Carrion, who has served as youth corrections commissioner in both New York State and New York City and now co-chairs Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice (YCLJ), a nonprofit group lobbying for juvenile justice reform.

At the same time, youth justice advocacy organizations in 22 states coordinated a letter-writing campaign to governors and other officials calling for the quick release of children facing juvenile court proceedings, removing youth who already have COVID-19 symptoms, and “eliminating any form of detention or incarceration for youth” with the exception of those whom officials determine pose a “substantial” safety risk to others.

“As the country continues to address the pandemic, we cannot leave behind our nearly 43,000 young people in custody,” said Liz Ryan, CEO of Youth First Initiative, which organized the effort.

“Youth prisons and detention facilities are harmful to youth under normal circumstances, and are simply not equipped to protect young people should an outbreak occur.”

While children are believed to be less susceptible to the disease, justice-involved youth are typically less healthy than their peers. They exhibit high rates of asthma, diabetes, and suffer from other “co-morbidities” such as substance abuse.

“As a nation, we have decided that it is not safe for children to be in school together; that means it is certainly not safe for them to live in congregate facilities with hundreds of other youth 24/7,” said Vincent Schiraldi, who was head of  juvenile corrections in Washington, DC, and now is co-chair of YCLJ and co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab.

“Those of us who have run these places know that the idea of social distancing is preposterous in such an environment, and introducing the virus to a locked facility would be devastating.”

So far, there have been no reports of infected young people in youth prisons, but employees at some detention facilities with large populations of young adults, such as New York’s Rikers Island, have tested positive.

The juvenile justice chiefs said all currently incarcerated youth who can “be safely cared for in their homes” should be released immediately.

Their recommendations also included:

        • Ending probation supervision for youth who have shown no behavioral issues;
        • Creating a “coronavirus safety plan” for the juvenile justice system that would include procedures to protect medically vulnerable young people;
        • Facilitate family contact for those who continue to be incarcerated through videoconferencing and other means.

Several juvenile corrections agencies around the country have already suspended juvenile court proceedings and banned visitation in youth facilities, according to participants in a webinar earlier this week that brought together more than 700 youth justice nonprofits and agency officials.

But some measures have come in for criticism.

In Maine, for example, family visitation for young people has been cancelled, but the measure “will only exacerbate mental health issues and further isolate youth,” warned the Maine Youth Justice organization in a letter to Gov. Janet Mills.

Advocates and agency officials made clear that delays were dangerous.

‘Unnecessary Risk’

“Incarcerating youth during this epidemic is an unnecessary risk,” said Mark Mertens, administrator of the Division of Youth and Family Services for Milwaukee County in Wisconsin.

“We can, and have, found safe alternatives to release some youth from incarceration in this difficult time [and] it begs the question that, if we can do it now, why haven’t we been more judicious about these alternatives all along?”

Nearly half—or 49 percent—of all youth detention admissions were for non-violent felony or misdemeanor charges, which suggested that in most cases releasing young people into the community now would not be a public safety risk, according to Raise the Age New York.

The organization called on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to announce a “moratorium on detention” of youth who have been charged with technical violations of their probation conditions, and the immediate release of all young people with underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus, “regardless of charges.”

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