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Juvenile Justice Efforts: Ups and Downs During Pandemic

Since March, many states have done a good job in keeping teens from entering juvenile detention centers. But getting teens already in custody released is an area still lagging. (Adobe Stock)
Since March, many states have done a good job in keeping teens from entering juvenile detention centers. But getting teens already in custody released is an area still lagging. (Adobe Stock)
July 20, 2020

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Positive trends in populations at youth detention centers in the U.S. have hit a snag, according a new report from The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

However, long-term efforts to keep teens out of these facilities still offer hope, including in Minnesota.

When the coronavirus pandemic started, the Casey Foundation says there was a steep drop in admission rates at certain youth detention facilities. But its new analysis found a population uptick in May.

Nate Balis, head of the Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, says while the front door of juvenile detention has narrowed, systems have struggled to get youth out.

"While the overall drop in admissions is over 50%, the drop in the population was down only 32%," he points out. "That tells us that there are obstacles that systems are facing in getting kids out of detention even as they're being successful in keeping kids out of detention."

Balis says it means many teens still live in pre-trial confinement, possibly exposing them to COVID-19, and Black teens are disproportionately affected.

In Ramsey County, officials say their current detention population is mostly African-American, and the length of stay now averages a month, which is longer than usual.

Overall, the county has reduced juvenile detention admissions by 75% since 2005, and says it has found success placing youth in more productive settings after sentencing.

That's because Ramsey County is working with the Casey Foundation on its Deep End program, which tries to reduce reliance on non-home placement.

Michelle Finstad, deputy director of the county's Juvenile Division, says prior to the effort, the county had a significant number of young people in non-home placement.

But there's been a nearly 60% drop in Deep End placements since 2014. That includes fewer youths of color in long-term confinement.

Finstad credits the assistance of community groups in shifting youth toward more productive settings after they're sentenced.

"Since 2015, we have tripled the number of community-based services that we provide," she states. "We've also worked really hard to develop more family engagement. We have trained our staff on family-engaged case planning, moving away from a more traditional model of supervision."

Finstad says the county also keeps an eye on safety through risk assessments. She adds her division is still working on reducing racial gaps for both the short-term and long-term.

As for youth being held longer during the pandemic, Casey Foundation officials say a pandemic-induced limit on court hearings might be playing a role.

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 - MN