Survey: Youth detention population plummets amid pandemic
In a survey of select local detention centers throughout the country, including in New Jersey, it was found that the number of young offenders in these facilities fell by 24% from March 1 to April 1.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the charitable organization that helped conduct the survey, the COVID-19 pandemic is dramatically altering the juvenile justice system, perhaps permanently shifting the way courts decide whether a young person should be confined pending his or her court hearing.
"We see both an active effort by juvenile justice systems to get kids out of detention faster and get them back home when they can, and also far fewer young people coming to the front door of detention and fewer young people getting through the front door of detention," said Nate Balis, director of the foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group.
The sharp drop in secure detention populations was driven primarily by a decline in the rate of admissions. Starting in mid-March, states were making decisions to close schools and recommending that gatherings not occur, and this likely led to fewer arrests of juveniles.
At the same time, when a juvenile did make his or her way before a judge, the justice system had to — more than ever because of the health crisis — determine whether admitting the young offender, even for a night, would be riskier than releasing him or her, Balis said.
"What we're talking about here — it's not young people who are coming in on armed robberies," Balis said. "Every day there are young people around the country who are locked up for behavior that does not rise to that level of violence, and are instead there for much more minor offenses and for technical violations of probatoon."
Compared to January and February, jurisdictions in March slightly increased the rate at which they were releasing young people from secure detention, the survey found. Just 15% of jurisdictions had confirmed COVID-19 cases in their detention facilities by early to mid-April.
The survey did not release data by state. Respondents were promised anonymity beyond the national level, a spokesperson said.
The 24% decline recorded by the survey was equal to the national decline seen over a seven-year period from 2010 to 2017.
"We are committed to tracking this data monthly," Balis said.