With hundreds of young people being released from custody in response to fears about their vulnerability to the coronavirus, juvenile justice advocates are now focusing on the kids left behind.
Youths remaining in juvenile detention facilities face lower levels of access to health care if they are sickened by the virus, and should be represented by specially designated “correctional health coordinators” in each state who can speak out for their needs, says Dr. Homer Venters, former chief medical officer for the New York City jail system.
The designated health coordinators should, in fact, represent the needs of all justice-involved individuals—whether in prison, youth facilities, or on probation or parole—to forestall greater tragedies from the unrestricted spread of the disease, said Dr. Venters, a leading epidemiologist who managed efforts to contain the outbreak of H1N1 virus when he was the chief medical supervisor at New York’s Rikers Island jail.
“Our first public health intervention must be to get [young people] out of these facilities,” he told a Zoom digital press conference hosted by the Youth First Initiative Tuesday.
But he warned that youths still in custody for whatever reason were in danger of becoming invisible to health care providers.
“Often people are getting sick in a cell or behind a door, and we don’t know about them,” a situation he said was complicated by the fact that the institutional care available to them is often less comprehensive than what COVID-19 sufferers on the outside receive.
“People who are justice-involved have a second, lower level of access to health care, and less likelihood of receiving evidence-based care,” he said. “That’s the horrible reality.”
An estimated 43,000 youths remain in juvenile facilities around the U.S., along with another 4,000 in adult jails and prisons, according to figures provided to The Crime Report. Although the figure represents a sharp decrease in juvenile incarceration from the mid-1990s, it still represents a ticking time bomb during the current pandemic.
Gina Womack, executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, said the situation in her state was reminiscent of the chaos that engulfed justice-involved juveniles during Hurricane Katrina.
Louisiana youths in detention “seem to be an afterthought” for policymakers who are addressing the high rate of COVID-19 infection in her state, she said.
Three children in state custody had tested positive last week, and more were likely—even as the medical care available to them was inadequate for their needs, she said.
“It’s almost as if Katrina had never happened,” said Womack. “It’s hard to understate the potential harm of holding kids in custody when court dates have been postponed [due to the coronavirus].”
Even as they have curtailed new admissions to juvenile facilities, several jurisdictions around the U.S. have begun to address the special needs of youths who have been released from detention as a result of deferred prosecutions.
San Francisco’s Challenge
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said the population of his city’s main youth detention facility, with a capacity of 132, had dropped to between 15 and 17 since the epidemic began, but youth providers now faced the challenge of developing placement options that ensured the children would remain safe and healthy on the outside.
“We are committed to making sure that [youths] are not kept in detention any longer than necessary,” he told the press conference. “But we are also facing a drastic reduction in placement options. We’re trying to ensure proper release plans are in place; our primary goal is to [place them back] within family.”
Children who cannot be released for whatever reason not only risk infection but psychological trauma.
“There’s a fear they can’t escape from this virus,” said
Hernán Carvente-Martinez, a youth partnership strategist with Youth First, who recalled the terrifying experience of being incarcerated in an upstate New York youth detention facility during Hurricane Sandy, when he was virtually cut off from news of his family.
The current health catastrophe is just as frightening, if not more so, he said.
It was almost impossible for young people to maintain social distancing in a prison environment where “cleanliness is an everyday struggle,” said Carvente-Martinez.
“They’re trapped, truly at the mercy of the virus,” he said, adding that today’s situation only underlined why the blanket incarceration of youth who posed little threat to public safety was poor policy.
“It takes a crisis to realize what young people go through in a facility-based setting.”
Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute and moderator of the press conference, said that calls to courts and prosecutors’ officers to stop processing justice-involved youth were starting to have an effect—but things had to move faster.
“We are in crisis mode,” he said.
Dr. Venters said the lack of consistent attention to the needs of incarcerated youth was particularly worrying because so many of them have co-occurring conditions like asthma which make them especially vulnerable to suffering acute reactions to the respiratory disease.
“With this crisis, a number of myths have come crashing down,” he said.
The first myth is that incarcerated populations can somehow escape getting sick because they are confined away from the general population during a pandemic, and the second was that young people are less likely to fall ill with COVID-19.
“The idea that they cannot die as a result of the disease is a myth,” said Dr. Venters. “They can, and they will.”
Dr. Venters called for the appointment of a “correctional health care coordinator” in each state, who presumably would work in cooperation with state health and prison authorities to focus on the needs of still-incarcerated populations during the crisis.
Their job would involve overseeing the post-release placement of youths discharged from the system, monitoring health and counseling needs, and ensuring adequate health care for those who remain, with the special aim of preventing the virus from spreading among staff and inmates.
“When the disease gets into these places, it spreads like wildfire, and it drives the curve in the exact opposite direction we want it to go,” he said.
Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab, and co-chair of Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, which has issued a call for immediately freeing all incarcerated youth during the health emergency, said concerns about the dangers to the wider community—families of young people, correctional staff and their families—should give policymakers additional reason for prompt action.
“If we wanted to design a place that would magnify the dangers of coronavirus, you could hardly do better than the youth facilities in the United States,” he said, noting that the growing likelihood of reductions in staff, because so many are calling in sick, threatened to overwhelm the capacity of many detention facilities.
“You don’t put up plywood and pick up a hammer when the winds are 80 miles an hour; this has to be done now,” Schiraldi added.
“The kids left behind need to be cared for, so they’re not freaking out.”
A Zoom video report of the virtual press conference is available here.
For further reference, see the paper “Guidance for Preventive and Responsive Measures to Coronavirus for Youth Agencies,” prepared last week by the Vera Institute of Justice.
The Crime Report has opened a resource file of stories mapping COVID-19’s impact on the criminal justice system to keep you abreast of fast-moving developments. Updated daily. Check it out here.
Stephen Handelman is executive editor of The Crime Report.