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Decreased Youth-Detention Numbers Seen as Chance for Change

The decrease in the number of young people in detention centers last month is as large as the drop from 2010 to 2017. (Alexander Raths/Adobe Stock)
The decrease in the number of young people in detention centers last month is as large as the drop from 2010 to 2017. (Alexander Raths/Adobe Stock)
April 28, 2020

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Youth-detention numbers are down by nearly a quarter across the country, according to a recent survey.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation polled facilities in 30 states - including Oregon - and found the number of young people in detention centers fell by 24% in March. That's the same drop that occurred nationally over seven years from 2010 to 2017.

Lisa Kay Williams, supervising attorney for the Portland-based group Youth, Rights and Justice, said the coronavirus outbreak is providing an opportunity for jurisdictions to reconsider their juvenile-justice policies.

"This crisis is forcing our systems to do things that we should do all the time, so we can really look at what are alternatives for kids instead of defaulting to detention," Williams said.

Researchers noted the data is significant, but only a snapshot of juvenile-justice systems nationwide. So far, there have been no reported cases of youth or guards at detention centers in Oregon testing positive for COVID-19.

Nate Balis is director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group.

"Maybe we are finally really 'right-sizing' juvenile detention in this country," Balis said. "We could emerge from the pandemic with a detention population that truly is young people who pose an immediate community safety risk, rather than all kinds of young people who are not a risk to public safety."

Williams said locking young people up can have a lot of negative effects, such as undermining community-based relationships. She said she hopes this will be the center of the conversation going forward.

"It's not just a health care risk, but it's a risk to their development, a risk to their future - a risk to all of us if they aren't allowed to realize their potential in a safe way," Williams said.

Disclosure: Annie E Casey Foundation contributes to our fund for reporting on Children's Issues, Criminal Justice, Early Childhood Education, Education, Juvenile Justice, Welfare Reform. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR