As cases of COVID-19 spike across the country, advocates and lawyers for detained juveniles are pushing for changes in the facilities that hold an estimated 43,000 juveniles in custody across the nation.
Some of the proposed changes for juvenile detention facilities are virus-specific, regarding sanitation and medical care. But other requested modifications have long been part of juvenile reform agendas.
“This situation has brought to light a lot of the inadequacies of the system, including overincarceration, curtailing education and toiletries, overuse of solitary detention and limitations on how often young people can call home,” said Dominique Nong, a senior policy associate with the Children’s Defense Fund California.
Youth justice advocates in 22 states wrote to governors, mayors and other officials in the hope of preventing the coronavirus from entering a youth lockup and spreading rapidly in a place where “social distancing” is nearly impossible and required hygiene supplies are considered contraband. That was according to a statement issued Thursday by the Youth First Initiative, a national advocacy group working to end youth imprisonment entirely.
Though the demands and recommendations have changed over the past week, a consensus is emerging.
Every letter urged police departments to issue citations instead of arresting low-level juvenile offenders and urged facilities to release young people detained for low-level crimes and those waiting in detention centers for a hearing.
Every letter also referenced what’s become a bedrock principle of juvenile justice reform: that youth convicted of nonviolent or status offenses should almost never be incarcerated. It’s a concept that hit home doubly as coronavirus threatened.
“We have heard for many, many years the dangers that exist in detention facilities, right? That can include physical assault and sexual assault, both for youth and staff,” said Naomi Smoot Evans, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. “And now we have this compounding danger of COVID-19.”
For Renée Slajda, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, the threat of the virus reinforced what advocates already know, that detention can lead to worse outcomes for youth. “The coronavirus heightens the risk of harm when children are detained,” she said.
It’s unclear how many states will follow the recommendation to release low-level offenders. About three-quarters of youth in secure care are there for nonviolent offenses. It’s a statistic that largely has stayed the same, even as overall populations of confined juveniles have dropped by 60% over the past 20 years.
Many of the suggestions that advocates made were virus-specific. Youth who may be particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus because of chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes should be released, said advocates, who demanded that facilities adapt prevention and containment protocols.
They asked for daily temperature checks of staff and detainees, access to medical care off-site — not in-house solitary confinement — for anyone who is symptomatic, and the ability to regularly use bars of soap, often held under lock and key, to be distributed only for bathing, and hand sanitizer, which is considered contraband because it contains alcohol.
Though researchers are still learning about the nuances of COVID-19, they are certain that it could spread rapidly within congregate facilities, said Susan Hassig, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans.
“The environment within a detention facility is primed for transmission from person to person,” she said. “The quarters are too close and often too dense, in terms of persons-per-square-footage.” The common areas that are a necessary part of such facilities are also hard to decontaminate. The virus can survive on surfaces “through little bitty invisible spittle on a cafeteria table,” she said.
Temporary innovations asked for
Some advocates called for COVID-19 tests, which are hard for even people outside facilities to access at this point. Nong would like to see that happen, but she understands that officials may turn a blind eye to that request. “If testing is limited everywhere, the last place it will come is juvenile hall,” she said.
Advocates and system administrators have also proposed some innovations that they hope will be shelved once the pandemic’s threat has abated. Videoconferenced hearings and check-ins are a good example of that. Probation officers are doing daily video check-ins with young people, especially those who are released from secure care to their families.
“Having kids at home is the safest atmosphere,” said Alyson Clements, director of membership and advocacy for the National Juvenile Justice Network.
While video hearings can help judges in closed courts hold detention hearings while limiting viral exposure, they aren’t considered a best practice: Studies have shown that a detained youth benefits from seeing a judge as a parental figure while a judge benefits from seeing a teen as a child.
Poor or no tech
Video also doesn’t allow for confidential conversations between a child and his lawyer, Nong said. She emphasized that criminal justice systems often have outdated videoconferencing equipment that creates poor sound and a foggy picture. “It isn’t like FaceTime or Skype; the technology is not sufficient,” she said.
Videoconferencing has also been instituted at some facilities as a replacement for in-person visitation. “Obviously, not having face-to-face access to families and instructors is harmful for kids,” Clements said. She knows visits cannot continue without new protocols: Temperature checks and other screening would have to be instituted for family members, along with teachers and outside people who run activities.
But those extra layers of precaution would be worth it, she believes. Because, given the academic challenges and low reading levels facing most system-involved youth, homework packets and online videos may be inadequate. And some families simply don’t have a way to receive video calls. “Not everyone has iPhones,” Clements said.
It’s clear that solitary confinement is overused at some juvenile facilities, and that phone calls aren’t seen as a lifeline during times of crisis but are instead often given to children as rewards, Nong said. “If they get in trouble, they don’t get a phone call.”
While the virus threatens, advocates have asked for more relaxed policies, with unlimited free calls for detained juveniles.
This is one of the most important “asks” made by advocates, Evans said. She emphasized that children must be able to access their family members, either in person or on the phone. “This is a scary enough situation for all of us, let alone for kids who are away from home,” she said.
Still, she saw a silver lining in the plans that some jurisdictions were forging in the face of the pandemic. “There’s a beauty in the opportunity that we have right now,” she said. “We always want that scenario where many kids are home and not at a detention facility and not in secure placement. And what we have right now is an opportunity to teach folks this actually works. That we can get folks back to their home, back to their community and it’s going to be safer for our kids and safer for our communities.”