The post-pandemic juvenile justice system could be more equitable. Will we choose that?

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When news broke that a 15-year-old girl was sent to juvenile detention for the “crime” of not doing her online homework, it did not surprise anyone who follows juvenile justice in America.

The case bore no exceptions but hallmarks of the system: harsh punishment for a child of color when support is a better alternative. It is cause for relief that she has just been released, but for weeks, Grace, who is Black, found herself in detention against her mother’s wishes. It was too easy to bring her into a system that failed to provide the support she needed and was unwilling to let her go.

Despite coronavirus outbreaks in juvenile facilities, and while protesters across the country are demanding racial equity, far too many youth of color languish in confinement. Evidence gathered in real time during the pandemic offers only the most recent confirmation that our juvenile justice system is unfair to Black, Latino and Native American young people and fails to help them thrive.

Surveys conducted monthly during the pandemic by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, where I serve as director, have documented a big drop in new admissions to detention for youth of all races and ethnicities. But release rates have fallen significantly since March, so detention populations are rising again. Worse yet, Black youth were released more slowly than their white peers before the pandemic, and the gap has grown, leaving disparities worse than before the COVID-19 crisis.

Too many young people accused of delinquency end up behind bars instead of connected to community services — despite substantial evidence that confinement harms youth while doing nothing to reduce reoffending. This toxic pattern both fractures relationships within families and communities and profoundly disrespects them, ignoring their wisdom about what is best for their children.

Year after year, the cost of lockups and surveillance crowds out funding for supportive, nurturing, developmentally appropriate opportunities more likely to help young people mature into healthy, productive, law-abiding adults. But over the past two decades, some systems have begun to embrace a less punitive and more developmentally appropriate vision of juvenile justice, and some jurisdictions are strengthening reforms during this crisis.

For example, at the county level, Georgia’s Clayton County scrapped its detention screening tool when the pandemic started, deciding to admit only youth accused of violent or gun felonies exploring release options for all detained youth; the detention population fell from an average of 15 youth to three or fewer. Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, judges, lawyers and probation officials collaborated on crafting safe release plans for youth in detention, which often included meals and check-ins provided by a church-based community organization.

Positive changes have also been made at the state level. Maryland tightened eligibility for detention and initiated weekly reviews to consider release options for every youth in confinement, leading to large population declines at its juvenile detention facilities.

And in all of these specific places, there has been virtually no incidence of serious new offending among youth who would have been confined under prior practices.

We face a crossroads. The economic downturn brought on by COVID-19 could kill off more effective approaches, but this moment has also created conditions for a better path forward — if we choose to follow it. 

Most of the time, young people need opportunity, support and a chance to repair the harm they have caused. Few need a courtroom or probation officer and far fewer should ever see the inside of a cell. The question is whether we will seize this moment — heeding research, following innovative examples from before and during the pandemic, and making the right choices in youth justice.

Will we prosecute predictable adolescent misbehavior in court, or provide resources to schools, families and communities that will empower them to respond?

Will we spend more money on detention and incarceration, or on community-based programs and youth development opportunities?

Will we employ more police officers in schools who might arrest kids, or employ more guidance counselors to steer students to success?

Will we end unequal treatment of young people by race and ethnicity, or continue allowing harsh treatment, which impacts  kids of color at higher rates?

Let us make something positive out of this national crisis. This moment is asking hard questions, and we must answer them the right way. Let us embrace choices necessary to ensure that our youth justice systems respect families, minimize confinement and promote young people’s long term success — and that they do so equally for youth of every race and ethnicity, everywhere, every day.

Nate Balis is the director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group.

Tags American juvenile justice system Black students Black youth Criminal justice Equity Juvenile court Juvenile detention racial equity

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