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COVID-19 Crisis a Chance to Rethink AZ Juvenile Detentions

A new survey shows that since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the number of young people detained in juvenile-justice facilities has dropped by 24%. (Olena/Adobe Stock)
A new survey shows that since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the number of young people detained in juvenile-justice facilities has dropped by 24%. (Olena/Adobe Stock)
April 29, 2020

TUCSON, Ariz. -- As the coronavirus pandemic took hold across the United States last month, a new survey found the number of young people in secure detention centers fell by 24%. Arizona juvenile-justice officials report the number of detentions in the state also has dropped, but data isn't yet available to confirm the percentage.

Molly Dunn, director of juvenile-justice policy for the Children's Action Alliance, said courts are being more cautious about who goes to detention during the pandemic, which could be an opportunity for officials to look at making the reduced rates permanent.

"The hope is that system actors will take this opportunity to rethink juvenile detentions in the long term," she said, "so that we can keep the public safe and young people connected to their services and their communities, long past COVID-19."

The Annie E. Casey Foundation survey, which polled juvenile-justice officials in 30 states, also showed last month's percentage reduction in youth detention in the areas surveyed equaled the entire seven-year decline from 2010 to 2017.

Nate Balis, director of the Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, said after the pandemic abates, he hopes that juvenile detention will be used sparingly, and only for those young people who might pose a danger to their community.

"Maybe we are finally really 'right-sizing' juvenile detention in this country," he 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."

Balis said the results of the survey show there's a need for a major retooling of the way juveniles are handled in the judicial system.

"This data really begs more questions than it answers," he said. "Why is detention going down right now? Among who is detention going down right now -- based on race, based on offense, all of that? This survey makes us want to know more about the answers to those questions."

The survey found that about 2 million American youths younger than age 18 are arrested and come into contact with the juvenile justice system each year.

The AECF survey is online at aecf.org.

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