Juvenile Detention Is Asinine Exception to Social Distancing

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coronavirus: Double exposure of young boy with sad eyes and abstract virus strain model over back of head

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Right now I’m almost sure that there is a 14- or 15-year-old crying from inside a jail cell at the Cook County [Ill.] Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (CCJTDC) — home of the world’s first juvenile court house established in 1899. There are many reasons this young person could be crying — they can’t have their mother come and visit as she has every week for the last few months. Maybe the young person was sure they were going to court but is told the courts that have the ability to free them is closed for 30 days. Or maybe, just maybe, the young person is sick from the contracting the coronavirus (COVID-19). 

On any given day at the CCJTDC there are boys and girls who will be herded into the CCJTDC through the intake process and thereafter placed inside a “housing pod” — a space less than the size of a full basketball court with 12 to 15 youth locked inside. There are 30 of these housing pods inside the CCJTDC — a four-story concrete and iron building on Chicago’s Westside. 

Paul Pearson (headshot), smiling man with short dark hair in dark jacket, plaid shirt and striped tie

Paul Pearson

Dr. Anne Spaulding, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Emory University, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “There’s nothing to make us think that a COVID-19 cannot spread through a crowded juvenile facility as quickly as it could spread through a cruise ship.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the virus can easily spread in dense places — in a packed subway car, for example, or at a rally or concert. 

There is now mounting concern that COVID-19 will find its way inside our correctional facilities. This   claim is not hyperbole, according to an article in The Hill: “An employee at New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility tested positive for the coronavirus … with two other’s tests pending.” A staffer at Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state has tested positive

And finally there is Dr. Robert Greifinger, “who has spent 25 years working on health care issues inside the nation’s prisons and jails.” Social distancing “isn’t so simple behind bars … crowding issues, ventilation issues, security issues where people have to be checked and monitored fairly frequently.” 

In response to the mounting evidence that detention facilities are the next breeding ground for the pandemic, the chief justice of the CCJTDC postponed most cases through April 15.

Survived so much already

These preventative measures, however well intended, will continue to put lives at risk — young lives — many of whom have made it through drug and gun wars, physical and sexual abuse, and mental and emotional abuses of every kind and survived. What no one with authority is willing to concede at this point is that social distancing needs to apply to youth detention centers right now. 

COVID-19 is like no other issue the courts or detention centers have seen before. Thousands of young people are at risk as they sit inside a cesspool detention facility waiting to be infected. Here we have no other choice and must call for the lifesaving measure on behalf of our detained youth.  

It is asinine that law and order has taken precedence over common sense. With the introduction of COVID-19 into the global lexicon we are also become increasingly aware of the term “social distancing.” Extraordinary precautions are being taken by our government leadership and agencies to ensure that as many people practice social distancing as possible. 

The business community has also stepped in to help combat COVID-19 concerns by facilitating remote work options for employees and closing brick and mortar locations until further notice. Even our schools, administrators, faculty and staff at every level of education across the nation are not exempt from the impacts of social distancing due to COVID-19. 

In our lifetimes most of us have never experienced anything similar to the health precautions taken to curtail the spread of COVID-19. This is of particular interest to those of us who advocate and lend voice for detained youth who are experiencing forms of marginalization and systemic trauma

There is an interest divergence occurring here where property takes priority over social distancing that can curtail the spread of COVID-19 and impact the wellbeing of us all. (Juvenile detention is “not considered appropriate for status offenders and youth” who commit technical probation violations. But almost 4,000 youth are held in Cook County detention centers for these same low-level offenses.) Thus the approximately 200 boys and girls are essentially waiting for COVID-19 to find its way into the CCJTDC. Maybe some young person arrested for stealing or fighting will bring in COVID-19? 

Maybe some correctional officer will bring COVID-19 into the space? Maybe even a judge will usher in COVID-19? I can’t be sure which of these options will take hold. What I am absolutely sure of is that COVID-19 will enter the CCJTDC. So let’s find practical solutions to make sure our kids aren’t there when it arrives. 

Paul Pearson is a Doctor of Education student at DePaul University, where he also received a Masters of Jurisprudence degree in public interest law with a focus on juvenile jurisprudence. He is also the founder of a volunteer organization, DuSable Community Coalition, focused on reducing recidivism as we find alternatives to youth detainment throughout the United States.

12 thoughts on “Juvenile Detention Is Asinine Exception to Social Distancing

  1. It takes a crisis to illuminate fundamental flaws in our (health, education, justice, housing) systems, and this author does a great job of exposing a critical flaw and a catastrophe waiting to happen. There’s a lot in the media about the virus as it hits cruise ships and endangers passengers and crew alike. But our prison/industrial complex, our institutions of punishment create a much more dire scenario. Iran released a third of its prison population last month—a comparable gesture here would mean more than 700, 000 released. It would be a humanitarian gesture, and sensible public health policy. Begin by releasing all juveniles, all inmates over 55 who have served at least 1/3 of their sentence, anyone held on bond awaiting trial, and closing all immigration detention. For a start. Great, thoughtful article.

    • Bill, I truly appreciate you taking time to make comment. You make a good point in your assertion that “it takes a crisis to illuminate fundamental flaws”. The question becomes for many of us – who says “fundamental flaws” are flaws at all? Especial when we take into account the historical approach taken by our government in times of crisis in relation to Black and Latino communities – starting with the Revolutionary War up to the current immigration debate. The rule thereby has been, at least from a majority of systems if not all, negative outcomes at disproportionate rates in the Black and Brown communities.

  2. Great article. Immediately upon our Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Georgia declaring a statewide judicial emergency and limiting court operations to essential functions, and specifically pointed to juvenile detention hearings and removals of children from homes in abuse and neglect matters, I entered an order to my staff, social service, law enforcement, and the detention center to assess every child in the detention center for release using the criteria that those who by clear and convincing evidence (not probable cause of preponderance) present a risk of serious bodily injury shall remain detained. Fortunately, because we are a JDAI site, we only had 15 kids detained in a 60 bed facility so there wasn’t a lot of work to determine which kids should be released.

    We immediately released 10 kids, and three more will appear before me on Thursday via Zoom video for a disposition hearing. The remaining two are set for trials, which have been suspended by the state order to avoid forcing witnesses and victims to exit their homes and risk infection or spreading it if they have it. My order also tightened up admissions to the detention center using the same criteria—must be a felony violent crime, all other felonies that would have been eligible for detention are ordered to intake the following day for screening and to assess if an alternative to detention is necessary such as a GPS monitor for example. Any cases the Intake Officer believes involve aggravating circumstances that would increase the risk of harm must be approved by me even if its 2 am in the morning. So far, no one has called me in these past 2-3 weeks.

    But one thing is sure, and I said all the above to make this point, many of these temporary procedures instituted to respond to the interim crisis will become permanent. I strongly ask practitioners, including fellow judges, to ask yourself if there are better alternatives to detention. I am looking at this crisis as an teaching moment respecting the use of detention. I may have reduced our average daily detention population from 62 to 15 using the JDAI model, but have I gone far enough? The answer, thanks to the silver lining in this dark cloud called the Covid-19, is a resounding no. It has forced me to take another look and by doing so, I know I can reduce that average daily detention numbers to 7 or 8 or even fewer. My county is the 5th largest in Georgia and a suburb of Atlanta and if we can reduce detention significantly and see a substantial decrease in juvenile crime, I think it begs the question why were using detention so quickly in the first place.

    Again, great article, and I hope when this is over, for those out there who have placed tighter controls on admissions and have released non-violent offenders during this period will seriously consider not going back to the same routine.

    • Judge Steven Teske, first I am humbled by your response to the the article – thank you for taking the time. I also applaud your utilization of the JDAI model, as you may be well aware, the Casey Foindation has been a stalwart in its research for alternatives to youth detention along with the foundations justice involved youth advocacy for decades now.

      The urgency of the life altering if not life threatening COCID-19 pandemic may in some ways give youth courts an opportunity to re-examine the application of due process for justice involved youth. As associate Justice Thurgood Marshall conveyed in his dissent in Schall v. Martin “preventive detention as merely a transfer of custody from a parent or guardian to the State is difficult to take seriously. Surely there is a qualitative difference between imprisonment and the condition of being subject to the supervision and control of an adult who has one’s best interests at heart”.

      With that being said – I too believe that some, if not many, of the practices introduced during this pandemic will facilitate positive and responsive approaches in our juvenile courts, probation, as well as detention facilities. To this end and while history may note that alternatives to youth detention evolved in response to COVID-19 – I believe that restorative practice in juvenile jurisprudence will have began taking shape long ago when advocates such as yourself, the Casey Foundation, and everyday citizens began asking ourselves “what does ‘in the best interest of the child’ really look like more than 100 years after the juvenile court was established ?”

  3. This system is severely flawed and needs immediate attention.This is definitely social injustice at the highest level..I appreciate you and all of your efforts to be the voice of the unheard and forgotten..Namaste brother Paul…

  4. This article truly shines a light on how our Government discards human beings that have detained. This article provides a voice for those whose voices have been ignored and opens the door for solutions! I hope that more attention and action is given to this subject so that our brothers and sisters are treated humanely.

  5. Thank you for being a voice of justice for our youth. During these times, I believe that if the youth have not committed non violent offense early release would be a safe measure to take! Peace!

    • Thank you for your concern and actions on behalf of the incarcerated youth. In light of the announcement today of the first death of a Stateville inmate, it is not a question of if, but of when the CCJTDC will be infected. It is essential that the powers that be ACT NOW to save the youth.

  6. Releasing the pre adjudicated non violent youth is the only social justice action amenable as we adhere to social distancing. Anything else is bureaucratic non-sense.

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