The youth detention population has declined 27 percent since the pandemic began to truly impact the United States. However, a report released Thursday which surveyed juvenile justice agencies in 33 states from January 1 to June 1 found that the rate of releasing young people from detention has “begun slowing dramatically,” resulting in an increase in the youth population behind bars while disproportionately keeping Black youth incarcerated.
In other words, “one of every three young people in detention on June 1 would not have been in detention if the release rate had stayed at its March level,” the report found.
Before COVID-19, the white youth release rate was about 7 percent higher than the rate for their African-American peers. By May, the rate was 17 percent higher, more than double, according to the study, conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s (AECF) Juvenile Justice Strategy Group.
The findings have alarmed family members and advocates alike due to the confinement and potential lethal exposure to the coronavirus.
“These data demonstrate how critical it is for juvenile justice systems not only to keep young people out of detention facilities but also to act with urgency to get young people out,” says Nate Balis, director of the AECF Juvenile Justice Strategy Group.
Liz Ryan, founder of the youth advocacy group Youth First, said the report’s findings showed that juvenile detention agencies’ actions during the outbreak were “utterly irresponsible and disgraceful.”
“It’s clear that the juvenile justice system does not value Black life even during a worldwide public health pandemic,” she said in a statement. “We know that detention is harmful to youth under normal circumstances, and now, this harm is amplified exponentially by the threat of this highly infectious virus, and juvenile detention officials failure to act is falling hardest on Black youth.”
Slowing Release Rates
The AECF report found that since May, the number of juveniles released has leveled out, no longer releasing youth at a rate faster than they’re being incarcerated. This has alarmed many, noting that from February to May, the overall system saw a decrease in half of the juvenile detention admissions.
As a result of the pendulum swinging, there was a 6 percent increase in juveniles behind bars from May 1 to June 1 because they were not being released faster than more youth were being incarcerated, the report details.
“Had the release rate in April and May 2020 stayed at the March rate, then dramatically fewer young people would have been held in detention on June 1, 2020,” the AECF report outlines, noting that the surveyed population as of June 1 was 3,267.
According to their calculations, if the March rate of 62 percent release rate was maintained, a third of the current youth incarcerated population would be free.
“The dangers of confinement were well known before the pandemic,” the report states. “The additional risk of COVID-19 transmission should make accelerating releases the priority for youth justice systems with respect to their use of secure detention.”
Resulting Racial Disparity
Balis connected these startling new statistics to racial injustice, saying, “A more equitable youth justice system requires intense focus on releasing Black youth from detention.”
The comments by Balis support a new finding in the report: since the United States started to feel the effects of the pandemic in March, Black youth tangled up in the justice system have been released at a slower rate than their white peers.
Moreover, even though the rate of Black youth admissions into detention centers have fallen, they continue to be “overrepresented in detention because the widening gap in the release rate is larger than any gains on the admissions side,” the report found.
According to jurisdictions that reported race and ethnicity data in their surveys, only about one-fifth of currently detained young people are white, but more than half are African-American and nearly one-fourth are Latinx.
This data comes after the startling fact that over the first three months of the pandemic, juvenile detention admissions were proportionate by race: 54 percent for Black youth, 52 percent for white youth, and 51 percent for Latinx youth.
So, the AECF report questions, why is it that the youth are being incarcerated at a somewhat equal rate based on race, but they’re not being released proportionately based on race?
This disparity further disadvantages Black youth, cutting them off from opportunities, the chance to see their family, and puts them at a greater risk to be infected by the coronavirus, the AECF report concludes.
COVID-19 in Juvenile Justice Settings
At the time of the survey’s completion, only 66 percent of responding jurisdictions said they had access to information about the coronavirus cases in their facilities and the infection rates. Of those responding jurisdictions, 85 percent reported “no confirmed or suspected COID-19 cases among their staff of youth.”
While this is good news on the surface, 15 percent of jurisdictions identified dozens of confirmed and suspected youth and staff cases.
While the AECF surveyors acknowledge that their report was not designed to calculate COVID-19 prevalence, the rates are still important to note because if infection rates inside facilities begin to skyrocket, more will have to be done on the legislative side to help release youth that deserves safety and care.
The full report can be accessed here.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.