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Will COVID-19 Hasten Juvenile Justice Reform in New Mexico?

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Monday, July 6, 2020   

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- As in the prison population in general, young people of color are disproportionately represented in the U.S. juvenile justice system - in nearly every state. But COVID-19 has brought some unforeseen changes.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation said fewer young people are being admitted to jails during the health crisis. And the drop has been greater among youth of color than their white peers.

Ezra Spitzer, executive director of the New Mexico Child Advocacy Network, said the decrease should serve as a reflection point - about whether reform would allow more kids to safely return to their communities sooner than previously thought.

"Even departments are saying like, 'Well, we've been reforming and these are the things we've done.' People are saying, 'Yeah, that's not enough,'" Spitzer said. "And it's such an interesting time that it's occurred during this pandemic."

The Casey Foundation reported the total juvenile detention population dropped by about one-third between March 1 and May 1. White youth detention fell 26% while detention of Black youth fell 30%, and detention of Latino youth fell 29%.

Nate Balis directs Juvenile Justice Strategy for the Casey Foundation, and speculated some of the lower incarceration rates may be because COVID-19 shutdown the school-to-prison pipeline.

"There are thousands and thousands of young people arrested every year in their schools," Balis said. "For the last three months, of course, there have been no young people in America who've been attending their schools. So, we know that that cuts off an entire source of arrests."

The push to reform the juvenile justice system is ongoing. But Spitzer said an incremental or 'band-aid' approach no longer works.

"I think what the reformers are wanting is big," he said. "I think there's a new generation of advocates coming in, right, who are much less incremental than the previous ones. And I think it's shifting the conversation."

The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department said the hardest thing for young people who are transitioning out of the state's juvenile justice system during the pandemic is finding a job. That's partly because of difficulty in obtaining an ID, birth certificate or Social Security card.

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.


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