The opportunity for juvenile justice reform after COVID-19
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The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and the accompanying global response to the crisis, has affected all aspects of our lives. Education systems across the country have adapted to ensure students can continue learning by using alternative tools and policies, and it is time for juvenile justice systems to follow suit. By evaluating changes in policies and practices in response to COVID-19, juvenile justice systems nationwide have an opportunity for meaningful reform. Across more than half of the U.S., the system is already reducing the amount of detention admissions for low-risk youth because of the current health crisis, providing opportunity for results-driven youth programs to replace traditional detention practices.

Despite the documented negative effects of detention on young people and the continued racial disparities that define juvenile detention in this country, approximately 15,660 young people are held in detention centers across the country on any given night. Nationally, girls, and particularly girls of color, are overrepresented among youth in secure detention, often due to domestic violence, theft, substance use and non-law violations of probation (e.g., running away, not going to school). According to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s 2018 Comprehensive Accountability Report, black girls represent about half (51 percent) of the girls held in secure detention, although they represent less than one quarter (23 percent) of the general population of girls in Florida.

The current health crisis has led to a reduction in low-risk youth detentions during this time. A survey of juvenile justice agencies in the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative in 30 states by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that from February 2020 to March 2020, the number of young people in secure detention decreased by 24 percent. This drop was driven by a steep decline in admissions as law enforcement, judges, and prosecutors used discretion and tools other than arrest and confinement (such as civil citation or similar pre-arrest diversion) to avoid sending new, low-level cases into the juvenile justice system during the pandemic. This decrease in rates of detention over a single month matches the national decrease in detention rates over the seven years from 2010 to 2017, a sign that COVID-19 is significantly altering policies and practices in juvenile justice.


While this progress is hopeful, there is still much that communities can do to strengthen these efforts. Evidence-based models that provide community-based supports and services are alternatives to detention that have proven effective. These models emphasize support, services and case management that address basic needs, such as access to housing and food, as well as family support services, counseling and mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and victim services. These approaches have driven decreases in recidivism, improved school success, increased employment rates and improvements in self-sufficiency among young people.

As a case in point in the southeast, The Pace Center for Girls has advocated for these approaches and helped change the life trajectory of more than 40,000 vulnerable girls and young women over the past 35 years. Over the past decade, Pace worked closely with elected and appointed officials in the state of Florida to change policies and practices that were driving low-risk but high-need young people into the juvenile justice system.

Recognizing that most girls entered the juvenile justice system with disturbing histories of trauma, Florida fundamentally changed its approach to juvenile justice, and in doing so reduced the number of girls referred by more than 52 percent over the past eight years, while ushering in the state’s lowest crime rate in 47 years. Prevention and early intervention models clearly demonstrate that public safety increases when communities reduce incarceration rates and provide specialized programs for young people at greater risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Our nation will adapt to the new and unique circumstances we find ourselves in following the pandemic. The successes that have been realized in Florida can serve as a template for how the rest of our nation can and should approach juvenile justice. This crisis teaches us that communities can safely and dramatically reduce detention rates by ensuring young people have access to services in their communities. By ensuring that those most vulnerable are not left behind, we can empower a generation that has been heavily impacted by this pandemic with a greater chance at success.

Mary Marx is president and CEO of Pace Center for Girls.