Releasing low-risk, incarcerated youth is not just smart for curbing the pandemic, it will improve the system.
Life is fundamentally changing right now.
Around the U.S. schools are closing to protect children — and their families — from COVID-19. But, at the same time, more than 48,000 youth are detained in the criminal justice system, all potentially at heightened risk for the coronavirus.
To protect them — and help them avoid carrying the virus back to their communities —jurisdictions should immediately examine which youth can be safely managed at home and reduce youth incarceration.
We know. We’ve run and transformed youth prison and probation systems in two major American cities, New York City and Washington D.C., safely moving kids from incarceration to community programs while ensuring public safety. That’s a good idea at any time, but especially during this pandemic.
Last week, we joined correctional administrators from around the country in calling for immediate efforts to reduce the number of incarcerated youth and to make urgent changes to the conditions facing those who remain in locked facilities.
While most young people are at lower risk of catching or dying from the virus, youth in the justice system are generally less healthy than their peers. They have more gaps in Medicaid enrollment and higher rates of asthma, which increases the severity of COVID-19.
Locking youth up tends to worsen mental illnesses they may already be dealing with, dramatically increases the risk of self-harm and is associated with risks lasting into adulthood, including poorer overall general health and increased incidence of suicide.
Detention facilities often exacerbate the risk factors for contracting coronavirus. Youths are frequently forced into close quarters, ventilation may not be ideal, soap is generally not readily available and hand sanitizer is often considered contraband. Medical care is often subpar.
The number of incarcerated youth should be minimized while the risk of coronavirus infection remains high. Thanks to years of reform, this is achievable.
Many jurisdictions, like the ones we have run, no longer operate large youth prisons and the number of incarcerated youths has dropped by 59 percent nationally since its 1997 peak. Youth crime has continued to decline.
Community based resources serve youth and public safety better. Where necessary, states and counties should provide emergency funding to community-based organizations to safely divert even more young people from incarceration. To protect those youth and staff still in correctional facilities, every youth justice system should produce a coronavirus response plan.
Last week, probation and parole officials around the country recommended reducing compliance-focused supervision; allowing check-ins by phone or video; and eliminating incarceration for technical, non-criminal violations like missing appointments.
Supervision of young people on probation has only a small impact on reoffending, reducing it by 1%, whereas offering support to youth decreases new offenses by 10%. In an extensive review of youth probation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that such supervision frequently focusses on mere compliance with standardized conditions, lasts too long and is too often applied to low-risk youth for whom supervision may be detrimental. The half-million young people on probation — and their families — shouldn’t be compelled, under the threat of incarceration, to sit in waiting rooms with other medically-vulnerable families and youth for such supervision.
Youth incarceration is counterproductive as a public safety tool. The majority of incarcerated youth will be rearrested within one year of their release. A growing body of evidence suggests that incarceration actually worsens youth behavior. It is hardly surprising that separating developing young people from schools, families and other supports to put them in a brutalizing environment would have a negative outcome, even before the coronavirus was a threat.
There are more reasons to re-examine these bad practices. They are morally unacceptable, harming black and brown children at much higher rates than their white peers. They are financially unsustainable, with incarceration being the most expensive and least effective response to youth crime. And they don’t make us safer; when we substantially reduced youth incarceration in New York City and Washington, D.C., youth crime went down, not up.
The USA’s ineffective response to juvenile crime is putting vulnerable children, their families and communities at greater risk from COVID-19. It is also cruel. If it would break your heart to put your child on a school bus right now, imagine what it would be like to see your child sent to prison where they would be significantly more vulnerable to the virus.
Once the pandemic subsides, schools will resume their old activities. That’s a good thing, because we know that education prepares young people for success.
But locked facilities and unsupportive probation practices do not. They make kids sicker, less likely to earn a degree or get married, and more likely to come back into contact with the legal system. When it comes to the youth justice system, it would be better if we never got back to normal.
Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute and former Interim director of Washington, D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Vincent Schiraldi is co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab and former commissioner of New York City Probation. Both are members of Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice a national coalition of youth justice leaders calling for a reduction in youth incarceration and an end to outdated large youth prisons.