As the novel coronavirus began to wreak havoc on American soil, many legislators and activists called for the release of young people in detention centers. In response, many government officials promised to slow the number of people being newly detained as a way to stop the spread of infection.
But the promises weren’t kept, according to a nationwide survey by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The survey, administered to youth justice agencies in 34 states, concluded that not only did the number of youth held in detention facilities stay relatively constant between May and August of 2020; the number of Latinx and Native American youth in those facilities actually increased in that period.
According to the researchers who conducted the survey, their findings indicate that the justice system is “reversing some of the gains made in the first few months of the pandemic, and [is]worsening racial and ethnic disparities.”
Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, called the findings “alarming.”
The high risk of COVID-19 transmission in confined spaces like detention facilities should have made shrinking the juvenile population behind bars a priority, he argued.
But “in spite of the risks of COVID-19 and how easily it can spread in detention centers, the population of Latino and Native American young people [in detention] has actually increased,” Bialis said.
“Simply maintaining the population ignores increasing evidence of the virus in youth detention facilities, despite the precautions many have taken.”
Working with the Pretrial Justice Institute and Impact Solutions for this study, the Annie E. Casey Foundation researchers first collected data on the youth detention population just weeks after the coronavirus pandemic spike in America through this past August.
They then sent out their survey to the communities involved in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative® (JDAI®), which was completed between August 5 – 26.
COVID-19 Behind Bars
One key finding: the coronavirus was more prevalent behind bars this past August than in prior months—and, in fact, more prevalent behind bars compared to the general U.S. population.
In June, the COVID-19 infection rate of juveniles held in facilities was 2.1 times higher than that of the U.S. population. Two months later, in August, the juvenile infection rate of those behind bars had increased to 3.4 times higher than the general population.
Even as the coronavirus behind bars spread, disproportionate numbers of young people of color were held in detention.
While the rate of admission per day fell to roughly half the normal rate from all groups during the first two months of the pandemic, the rate of admission for Black youth jumped by 20 percent and surged among Latinx youth by 28 percent.
This racial disparity highlights a systemic gap, favoring white youth, the researchers write.
Within the facilities across 34 states that responded to the Annie E. Casey Foundation survey, the researchers found that white youth have continued to be released from detention centers faster than youth of color — particularly Latinx and Native American children.
“In July, the release rate was 61 percent among white youth compared with 55 percent among Black youth,” the report detailed.
“The rate was 52 percent for Latino youth, and worse still among Native American youth (50 percent).”
Put in another perspective, one of every three juveniles in detention on August 1, 2020, would not have been in detention if the release rate had stayed at its March level of 65 percent. With that statistic, the August 1 population of 2,961 youth would have been just 1,881.
This, the researchers write, is like ripping the rug out from under some juveniles when giving them a chance of being safe, at home, with their families during this pandemic is an option that hasn’t been fulfilled.
The researchers highlighted the differences between detention centers and youth prisons — noting that detention is an “early phase in the juvenile justice process,” where the courts decide what path the young person will go on, versus a prison where someone has already been found guilty of a crime.
This, they say, must be remembered moving forward as a recommendation, so that when lawmakers look at how to proceed with these children, they do so knowing the population they’re treating.
The full report can be accessed here.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.