Story at a glance

  • Outbreaks of COVID-19 in detention centers have led to the decarceration of many Americans within the criminal justice system.
  • Surveys show that white youths are more likely to be released than Black or other youths of color.
  • At the same time, more Black and Latino youth are being arrested than white youth, according to a new investigation.

As the juvenile justice system took a step towards decarceration during the coronavirus pandemic, young Black inmates were held back, revealed a survey of juvenile justice agencies in more than 30 states.

After jails and prisons became COVID-19 hotspots, many states moved to depopulate detention facilities in the early months of the pandemic. The number of young people in local secure detention centers fell by 24 percent in March 2020, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, releasing white youths at a 17 percent higher rate than Black youths by May.


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“It’s fitting that in 2020, the year that juxtaposed COVID and racial justice protests, we saw this shrinking of the system — but also a resistance to doing so for young Black people,” Patricia Soung, a juvenile attorney and former director of youth justice policy for the Children’s Defense Fund in California, told the Marshall Project.

Since then, the Marshall Project reports that the number of Black and Latino youths in detention has risen, many of whom are incarcerated for more serious offenses, while the number of white youths remains at a historic low as police are out of schools and taking a more "hands-off" approach. At the same time, the investigation found that youths of color are less likely to be released by the system, citing fewer places to go and greater COVID-19 risks within communities of color.  


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More research is needed, experts agree, to understand the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the juvenile justice system. Meanwhile, those who remain incarcerated are increasingly isolated, as research warns of the damage to the physical and mental development of these youths.  

“The juvenile justice system that emerges from this crisis will be profoundly different from the one that entered it just weeks ago,” said Nate Balis, director of the Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, in a release. “The sooner we can understand exactly how and why these changes are occurring, the better equipped we will be to ensure that the lasting changes will be positive ones.”


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Published on Mar 08, 2021