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Juvenile-Justice Reform Movement Aided by Detention Decline During Crisis

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Alternatives Initiative, more than 200,000 young people a year are admitted to detention facilities in the United States. (Adobe Stock)
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Alternatives Initiative, more than 200,000 young people a year are admitted to detention facilities in the United States. (Adobe Stock)
May 5, 2020

PIERRE, S.D. -- A downward trend in juvenile-detention populations during the pandemic is renewing hopes among reform advocates. The numbers are reflected in a national survey that reached out to agencies in 30 states, including South Dakota.

Funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the report shows a 24% drop nationally in the number of young people held in local detention centers in March.

Nate Balis, director of the Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, said this creates a window for longstanding changes.

"It's an opportunity to provide more support to organizations that are actually working with young people in the community, supporting them and their families keeping all of us safe, and to disinvest from the overuse of secure detention centers, youth prisons and other residential facilities," Balis said.

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.

South Dakota once had the second-highest juvenile incarceration rate in the country, despite having a lower violent crime rate among this age group.

Joe Guttierez, commander at the Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center, said reforms at the state level in recent years have had a positive impact, and better risk assessment can be a tool for all states.

"I believe that risk assessment is probably one of the best things South Dakota has done in juvenile justice in a long time," Guttierez said, "because now, it's a gatekeeper based on a score."

But Guttierez said he still sees too many teens who struggle with mental-health issues being assessed by the system. Research shows that even a short stay in detention can lead to poor outcomes for youths, including a deeper involvement in the criminal-justice system, as well as negative impacts on health and educational success.

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.
Mike Moen, Public News Service - SD