Incarcerating Youth Should Be ‘Last Resort’ During Pandemic

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Photo by the Children At Risk Foundation via Flickr.

On any given day, approximately 43,600 people younger than 18 years of age are held in youth detention facilities across America. 

Even under normal circumstances, many detention facilities are unable to provide a clean and safe environment for these young individuals, and the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the trauma these children experience in detention, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). 

Incarcerating young people should, therefore, be used only as a “last resort” the AAP says in a new policy statement.

The AAP, a national organization of 67,000 primary care pediatricians, also published a series of recommendations that included strategies for developing alternatives to youth detention, noting that the  COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally changed how the public sees prisons.

Citing reports of youth being held in isolation for up to 23 hours a day and having poor access to soap and personal protective equipment, the AAP said youth involved in the justice system are more likely to have unmet physical health, mental health, social needs, while also being more likely to have been exposed to adverse childhood experiences.

“Nine out of 10 young people who enter the justice system have suffered some childhood trauma,” Dr. Mikah C. Owen, lead author of the policy statement, said in a  statement accompanying the release.

“Those incarcerated for substance use or other nonviolent offenses…may be better off remaining in their community with services in place.”

These individuals are also more likely to be youth of color; placing them uniquely at risk for COVID-19, the AAP said, noting that the pandemic has disproportionately affected African Americans and Latinx across the country. 

For example, an analysis of data from New York found that “neighborhoods with higher rates of confirmed COVID-19 cases have lower median incomes, and higher shares of residents who are Black or Hispanic.” 

The AAP called on state and local juvenile justice authorities to create transition plans for the incarcerated youth, and release any that could be safely cared for in their home communities. 

These children’s basic needs are not being met in detention facilities, the AAP report argues, and so, they have a right to be in an environment that doesn’t further traumatize them, or endanger their health outright. 

Moreover, the AAP says this is a time to increase the use of diversion strategies like support groups, not further criminalize the youth.

In response, the AAP recommended community-wide participation to reduce new juvenile detention facility admissions, “within the constraints of public safety.” 

The AAP said authorities responsible for young people should develop and publish COVID-19 response plans to ensure that there is transparency. These plans must also include all data relating to suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases in the facilities while being released in a timely manner. 

Finally, the AAP report recommended that juvenile detention facilities must “ensure all staff members are trained on the implementation of the response plans” while the local governments and state governments must “provide emergency funding to expand community-based services and supports for youth diverted or released from detention facilities.”

“If we are to effectively manage this pandemic, we must understand and acknowledge the unique vulnerabilities some communities face as we propose solutions, treatments, and financial supports,”  wrote Sally Goza, MD, president of the AAP.  

In this case, the youth involved with the justice system are members of these “marginalized and vulnerable populations” and so they are entitled to special consideration in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

See also: Violence in Juvenile Detention Facilities Spurs Renewed Calls to Bring Youths Home

The full report can be accessed here.

Andrea Cipriano is a  staff writer for TCR.

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