Study Finds Racial Disparities In Juvenile Detention Got Worse In Pandemic

A new study found the population of Black and Latino youth in juvenile detention centers increased during the pandemic, amplifying concerns about racial disparities in the American criminal justice system. 

The Annie E. Casey Foundation released the findings of the data they started collecting on May 1, 2020 through February 1, 2021. In the data from 144 jurisdictions across 33 states, representing over 30% of the nation’s population of youth, ages 10 to 17, they found an overall decrease in juvenile detention of 26% compared to the year before. However, the number of Black and Latino youth in juvenile centers increased by 14% and 2%, respectively. White, non-Latino youth saw a decrease of 6% in juvenile centers, the Foundation survey found. 

While new admission to detention centers remained low, the overall youth detention population increased by more than 6% between May 2020 and February due to Black and Latino youth staying in detention longer. 

“Jurisdictions have told us they think that longer lengths of stay in detention are being driven by a detention population that now only contains youth with the most serious offenses and complex cases,” Nate Balis, director of the Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group said in a statement. “If that’s so for all racial and ethnic groups, then jurisdictions must determine why it’s primarily Black and Latino youth who seem to be getting stuck in detention.” 

Of note also is that jurisdictions began accelerating releases in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic revved up across the US. White youth were more likely than Black or Latino youths to be released during this time. 

As the nation reckons with racial disparities in its institutions, the criminal punishment of Black youth and other youth of color is central to many initiatives. 

“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 in 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

The Marshall Project found that some juvenile justice officials were hesitant to release some youth back home because their caregivers were more likely to be elderly and more at risk for contracting COVID-19. 

To combat the issue and disparity, The Sentencing Project recommends local and state leaders publicly address it in statements, as well as collecting and publishing data.

The organization, like many criminal justice advocates call for, also recommends making investments in communities to use a proactive approach of addressing the causes of crimes. This is especially relevant as the nation works to reopen in-person school and other extracurricular activities for youth.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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