COVID-19 Could Mark a Turning Point for Juvenile Justice Reform

Juvenile Justice advocates hope a trend that has emerged during the coronavirus pandemic might be permanent, and not just temporary. KGNU’s Roz Brown says a new survey shows there’s been a dramatic drop in the number of young people in juvenile detention during the current crisis.

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As the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U-S during the month of March, the number of young people in secure detention centers in their local communities fell by 24-percent according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation survey. The survey was only conducted in 30 states, but Nate Balis with the Foundation says the decline was as large as the national decrease between 2010 and 2017.

“Maybe we are finally really right sizing juvenile detention in this country,” said Balis. “We could emerge from the pandemic with a detention population that truly is young people who pose an immediate community safety risk rather than all kinds of young people who are not a risk to public safety.”

Juvenile Justice Advocates say children should be detained only as a last resort, in extreme circumstances and for the shortest period of time possible. But due to a lack of resources in some states, Balis says that’s not what happens.

“Many young people are held in secure detention,” said Balis. “They’ve broken rules of probation, because they’ve committed a minor offense in the community, because they’ve been arrested at school. And so all of these things end up being the reasons that systems sometimes use secure detention, even though the point should be one that’s focused on community safety.

Adrian Van Nice oversees the juvenile unit for the Boulder County District Attorney’s office. She says Boulder County has made major innovations in its juvenile justice program. That includes limiting those held in secure detention. She says prior to crisis they had a cap of 11 beds.

“Currently our cap is five and we have held steady throughout the crisis at a pretty stable three, and two of those individuals had been arrested on serious gun-related charges and one was in custody awaiting a high-level treatment placement, said Van Nice.”

Many who’ve looked at the recent data say it poses more questions than answers. Why is juvenile detention going down right now? Who is not being detained? Is it based on race, based on the crime? Or is it strictly fear that incarcerated kids may get sick with COVID-19? And if that’s the case, did they really need to be incarcerated? Van Nice believes the answer could be different for each state.

Van Nice says the reduced during numbers during this crisis could be an opportunity to provide more support to organizations that are actually working with young people in the community and disinvest from the over-use of secure detention centers, youth prisons and other residential facilities.

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