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Pandemic Pushes Juvenile Justice Reform into Spotlight

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An estimated 218,000 young people are held in U.S. juvenile detention facilities each year. (Adobe Stock)
An estimated 218,000 young people are held in U.S. juvenile detention facilities each year. (Adobe Stock)
May 4, 2020

MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- Juvenile justice reform advocates say a downward trend in detention populations during the pandemic could pave the way for longstanding changes. A survey of agencies in 30 states, including Wisconsin, shows detention admissions are down significantly.

The report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation used March data from local centers across the country and shows a 24% decrease in young people being detained.

Nate Balis, director of the Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, said the decline was as large in one month as the national decrease between 2010 and 2017.

"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."

The survey found the recent decrease was driven mostly by a drop in admissions, from 171 per day in January to about 122 per day in March. Respondents from several states also noted that detention releases had ticked up at the onset of the pandemic.

Sharlen Moore, director of Youth Justice Milwaukee, said juvenile justice officials have indicated these actions aren't just safety protocols. She said the pandemic is prompting stakeholders to take a longer look at the effectiveness of punitive measures for young, nonviolent offenders.

"It has really had individuals - or, you know, states, counties - look more inward," Moore said, "because the pandemic has literally brought to light such a great deal of disparities within the city."

Milwaukee is among the cities where the coronavirus has ravaged black communities. Historically, Milwaukee also has represented most of Wisconsin's juvenile detention population. Moore said she hopes these findings inspire more local governments to redirect funding to alternative programs.

Disclosure: The 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.
Mike Moen, Public News Service - WI