As COVID-19 spreads among youth and staff in juvenile correctional facilities, some states are moving to reduce confined populations. Although motivated by urgent health concerns, many of these policies are consistent with public safety research and reflect a continuing effort by state policymakers to decrease both incarceration and crime.
In recent weeks, a growing number of facilities have reported positive tests for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Among the examples are 25 youth at the Bon Air juvenile correctional center in Virginia; 23 staff at the Crossroads and Horizon juvenile detention centers in New York City, including one death; and 28 youth and 33 staff in Louisiana’s secure placement facilities. At the Louisiana facilities, that represents more than 10% of all youth in state secure facilities for adjudicated youth.
To slow the spread, elected and appointed leaders in some jurisdictions are adopting policies to shrink correctional populations by accelerating releases and restricting admissions. In response to gubernatorial mandates to reduce short-term detention and longer-term residential placement, juvenile justice administrators in Michigan, California, and other states are trying to determine which youth can be safely supervised in the community. In some cases, such as in Illinois and New York, officials have released youth within three months of completing their programs. In Mississippi, officials are releasing those who have served at least 90 days in secure placement.
Some states also are restricting which youth enter their facilities or return after release. New York and Utah, for example, have limited the use of confinement as a sanction for breaking the rules of community supervision (so-called “revocations”). Such policies are having a quick impact: In New York, the share of admissions attributable to revocations following release from confinement have dropped from 57% to 25%.
The number of youth confined in juvenile facilities has fallen rapidly in some states: Illinois reported that its total count has decreased 30% since mid-March, while an official in Mississippi’s Department of Youth Services said his state released half of the youth in secure placement the week of March 13—and has not accepted new admissions since then.
Many of these population-control measures represent responses to a troubling health emergency, but a substantial body of research supports these reductions. These analyses indicate that juvenile incarceration generally fails to reduce recidivism and in some cases can be counterproductive. For example, one found that youth from Phoenix and Philadelphia who had little history of offending were actually more likely to reoffend after an institutional stay.
Research also shows no consistent relationship between time in confinement and rates of reoffending. One study from Ohio, for example, found that reincarceration rates for juveniles held in state facilities for longer periods were higher than rates for those confined for shorter periods, even after controlling for demographic variables and risk levels.
Based in part on such research, states across the country began adopting changes in policy and practices and observing positive outcomes—long before the current pandemic.
Kansas proved to be a leader, moving in 2016 to limit out-of-home placement of youth for misdemeanors and many felonies and to prohibit incarceration for violations of probation and conditional release. The state’s changes also ended detention for status offenses such as curfew and truancy violations, which don’t have adult equivalents.
In addition, the law increased opportunities for youth to be diverted from involvement in the formal system and to be issued notices to appear in lieu of arrest. Since that time, the out-of-home population has dropped by nearly two-thirds, and youth arrests have continued their long-term decline.
Lawmakers in Utah also opted to keep youth who can be supervised safely in the community out of residential placements by limiting who can go to such placements and how long they can stay. In addition, under 2017 legislation, youth can be detained only if a court finds that releasing them would pose an unreasonable risk to public safety—and that all less-restrictive alternatives have been considered. Detention admissions have since fallen by 44%, and diversions of youth away from formal court adjudication have increased substantially. At the same time, arrests continue to decline.
Now that most states face sustained fiscal downturns because of the pandemic, policymakers have another reason to reduce confinement of young people and provide better support for those who remain in their communities: the high cost of incarceration to taxpayers. The changes in Utah demonstrate the potential benefits. Before implementing its reforms, the state paid up to $127,750 a year for youth housed in juvenile facilities. That’s 17 times more than the cost of probation, which can often achieve comparable or better outcomes.
The costs—and risks—of confining youth in residential placements have been elevated by the potential transmission of COVID-19. New budget challenges lie ahead. Fortunately, state leaders can address these challenges and navigate this unsettling time by leaning on a deep research base and large menu of tested policy options that can help them safely reduce the number of youth in facilities and heed physical distancing guidelines intended to promote safer communities.
Dana Shoenberg is a senior manager of juvenile justice research and policy at The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.