WASHINGTON — Black youth detained in juvenile justice facilities have been released at a far slower rate than their white peers in response to the coronavirus, according to a new report that also found that the gap in release rates between the two groups had nearly doubled over the course of the pandemic.
The report, released this month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, illustrates one more disparity the coronavirus has exacerbated for Black children, who are disproportionately funneled into the juvenile justice system. At the outset of the pandemic, juvenile public defenders and youth advocates worked to free thousands of children from detention facilities as public health officials warned that correctional institutions were becoming virus hotbeds.
Judges and state leaders have taken measures to halt intakes of low-level offenders and to send nonviolent and vulnerable detainees home. But the Casey report, based on a survey of juvenile justice agencies in 33 states, found that many Black children ages 10 to 17 had been left behind. In February, before the coronavirus was widespread in the United States, the white release rate was about 7 percent higher than the Black release rate, the report found; by May, that gap rose to 17 percent.
“It’s clear that the juvenile justice system does not value Black life even during a worldwide public health pandemic,” said Liz Ryan, the president and chief executive of Youth First Initiative, an advocacy group that campaigns against youth incarceration. “Juvenile detention agencies’ inaction during Covid-19 has exacerbated racial disparities and is utterly irresponsible and disgraceful.”
Nate Balis, the director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, said the push to release young people from confinement had lost momentum since showing initial results. The organization tracked a significant 27 percent decrease in the youth detention population since the pandemic began, and admission rates dropped proportionately by race among Black, white and Latino youth. But after a surge of releases in March, they tapered off in April and May, and Black youth remained overrepresented in detention, partly because their release rates had stalled.
“In the months since the pandemic emerged in March, the disparities in detention that disadvantage Black youth have gotten worse, solely because Black youth have been released at a slower rate than their white peers,” the report said.
The survey did not include explanations for why young people remained detained. Judges and law enforcement officials who opposed calls for juvenile release argued that some low-level offense categories did not capture the dangerous nature of the crimes, and that many youth were better off in state custody because they risked returning to unstable home lives and unsafe neighborhoods.
Proponents of release countered with data showing that juvenile crime had declined 71 percent since 1997, and the number of incarcerated youths had dropped 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,” Mr. Balis said. “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.”
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.
Juvenile justice groups say efforts to release more young people as the virus resurges must focus on the officials who are making decisions about youth releases.
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In May, a Michigan judge ordered a 15-year-old girl back to juvenile detention in May, saying she violated probation terms by skipping her school’s remote-learning coursework. The case, first reported by ProPublica, caused a national outcry, and the judge’s decision is being reviewed by the state’s Supreme Court.
The virus continues to sweep through juvenile facilities. According to data collected by the Sentencing Project, which has tracked the number of reported cases in juvenile facilities each week since March, coronavirus case counts among detained youth has surged in recent weeks, following the national trend. The group has recorded a total of 1,310 coronavirus cases among youth and 1,550 among detention staff since March.
“You can’t incarcerate a virus,” said Joshua Rovner, a senior advocacy associate at the Sentencing Project.
“We should be happy that many youth are being released who should have never been there in the first place,” he said. “I don’t want to minimize the fact that white youth are benefiting from that, but the data speak for itself: All of our kids are not being treated equally.”
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