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Pandemic Leads to Powerful Drop in Juvenile Detention

The daily population in Virginia's youth detention centers plummeted by more than 50% from 2015 to 2018. (Adobe Stock)
The daily population in Virginia's youth detention centers plummeted by more than 50% from 2015 to 2018. (Adobe Stock)
May 6, 2020

RICHMOND, Va. -- Juvenile detentions have plummeted dramatically during the pandemic, according to a new report, bolstering efforts by reform groups.

The survey of juvenile-justice agencies in 30 states including Virginia revealed a 24% drop in the number of young people held in local detention centers in March. Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, which conducted the survey, said the report showed a trend in the successful use of community settings for rehabilitation, rather than detention.

"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."

The report said the decrease in detention population was driven mostly by a steep decline in the rate of youth admissions, dropping from an average of 171 per day in January and February to 122 per day in March.

The Commonwealth's Department of Juvenile Justice found the average daily population in state juvenile-detention centers was 216 in 2018, compared with 466 just three years earlier. Shannon Ellis, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond, said the trend has continued, adding that she believes the change is due, in part, to groups advocating for community placement as a more effective alternative to incarceration.

"It's sad that it has to take a pandemic for this shift to start to happen," she said, "but any move in that direction is a long-term positive, not just for incarcerated youths but for their families, for their communities and, really, the state as a whole."

She said legislatures across the country have recognized that young people have the unique capacity to "age out" of risky behavior, making rehabilitation the best option for change.

The AECF survey is online at aecf.org, and the Virginia Juvenile Justice Department report is at djj.virginia.gov.

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.
Diane Bernard, Public News Service - VA