In the early days of the pandemic, there was a sustained push to release those incarcerated in the nation’s jails, prisons and juvenile detention facilities. Unfortunately, that momentum has slowed and, in the case of juvenile detention centers, Black youth have disproportionately been left behind, according to a new report.
Released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the report reveals that over the course of the pandemic the release gap between white and Black youth has grown from 7 percent to 17 percent, the New York Time reports. Nate Balis, the director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, noted that while there’s been a 27 percent decrease in the number of youth detained, the initial flood of releases in March has slowed to a trickle. This has resulted in a number of Black and brown youth being left behind in the system.
From the Annie E. Casey Foundation:
The release rate is the percentage of all young people who were in detention at any point during a month who were released before the end of that month. The higher the release rate, the shorter stays in detention are on average. If the release rate is dropping, as it was in April and May, then young people are staying longer. By May, the rate had slowed by 22% compared to its March high.
One of every three young people in detention on June 1, 2020, would not have been in detention if the release rate had stayed at its March level.
Had the release rate in April and May 2020 stayed at the March rate of 62%, then dramatically fewer young people would have been held in detention on June 1, 2020. The actual population as of June 1 was 3,267. It would have been one-third lower, just 2,177, if the March rate were maintained.
“It’s clear that the juvenile justice system does not value Black life even during a worldwide public health pandemic,” Liz Ryan, the president and chief executive of Youth First Initiative, an organization that advocates against youth incarceration, told the Times. “Juvenile detention agencies’ inaction during Covid-19 has exacerbated racial disparities and is utterly irresponsible and disgraceful.”
Judges and law enforcement officials have argued that the low-level offensces some of the children were charged with didn’t properly convey their danger. They’ve also argued it’s safer for some of the kids to remain in custody as opposed to returning to their homes or neighborhoods. A Michigan judge recently employed this logic when refusing to release a 15-year-old girl currently in juvenile detention for not completing her homework. Release advocates have pointed out that juvenile crime has fallen 71 percent over the last 23 years and incarcerations in total have fallen 59 percent
“Based on what the data has been showing us for years, there’s no reason to believe that the kids who are there today are there for major offenses,” Balis told the Times. “Especially during the pandemic, especially in this moment of heightened awareness of racial disparity in this country, every system needs to be looking at their data and figuring out what stands in their way.”
From the New York Times:
In Maryland, which released at least 200 juvenile offenders during the pandemic after the state’s chief judge signed an order encouraging courts to do so, population and admissions rates have plummeted so much that two juvenile facilities have closed. But advocates say that Black youth who remain in the system have misperceptions stacked against them.
“We’ve seen prosecutors and judges argue that Covid isn’t killing young people in large numbers, thereby downplaying the other long-term consequences of this devastating disease,” said Jennifer L. Egan, the chief attorney in the juvenile division for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore, which filed an emergency petition that prompted the high court’s order this spring.
“We also know that racism leads people to underestimate the pain experienced by Black people,” she added.
Advocates have argued that as the virus continues to surge throughout the country, so should releases. The Sentencing Project has collected data tracking the spread of COVID-19 in juvenile detention centers since March. So far, there have been 1,310 coronavirus cases among youth across 32 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Among detention staff, that number increases to 1,550 across 40 states, as well as Washington, D.C.
“We should be happy that many youth are being released who should have never been there in the first place,” Joshua Rovner, a senior advocacy associate at the Sentencing Project told the Times. “I don’t want to minimize the fact that white youth are benefiting from that, but the data speak[s] for itself: All of our kids are not being treated equally.”
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