How to protect justice-involved youth in the wake of COVID-19
Aubrey Edwards-Luce, Bruce LesleyJuvenile Justice
Every facet of the lives of children and families are being disrupted during this historic public health and economic crisis. Unfortunately, both their short-term and long-term consequences and challenges are not being fully considered or discussed. This crisis is severe and will last for months or even years to come. Moreover, the resulting physical and mental health consequences, impact on education and child development, and economic implications of this calamity will last well beyond the coronavirus itself.
That is why First Focus Campaign for Children called on Congress to safeguard the physical, emotional, financial, and developmental health and well-being of our nation’s 74 million children with a specific package of legislative proposals across a range of issues — including juvenile justice.
There are approximately 43,000 justice-involved youth who are detained in facilities away from their homes on an average night in our country. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), nearly 60 percent of these youth are detained for violating terms of their probation, committing status offenses (such as skipping school or running away), or committing misdemeanors. In addition to other status offenses, youth should also not be subject to criminal punishment for violation of quarantine protocols, as their brains are still undergoing critical stages of development. Facilities pose a serious risk to these young people during the pandemic and an increased health cost to states. Justice-involved youth are particularly vulnerable because they are more likely to have underlying health issues. Congress can respond to the needs of states and justice-involved youth by taking the following actions:
- Increase Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Programming: Appropriate $100 million to prevent and mitigate the COVID-19 risks for justice-involved youth. These funds should remain available until September 30, 2021, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, of which $75 million shall be granted to state and local agencies for juvenile delinquency programming authorized by section 221 of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, and $25 million for delinquency prevention, as authorized by section 504 of the Act.
- Incentivize States to Release Youth from Detention Facilities: Incentivize states and localities to release detained youth by increasing the FMAP by 2 percent for any state or jurisdiction that enacts widespread policies that release 10 percent or more of their state prison and youth detention population. Allow states to receive an additional 1 percent increase in FMAP for working with local jurisdictions to release 15 percent or more of their local jail population for the duration of the pandemic. These states and local jurisdictions can remain eligible for an increased FMAP if they maintain these decreases after the immediate COVID-19 crisis has passed.
- Urge Bureau of Prisons to Release Juveniles from Custody: In 2017 there were fewer than 45 youth in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons. The recidivism rates for youth in BOP custody is low but the risk of them contracting this deadly virus while in congregate care is unacceptably high. Congress should incentivize BOP to release juveniles from custody and provide funding for alternative ways to meet these youth‘s supervisory and treatment needs.
For a full list of our specific policy recommendations across the array of children’s issues, check out our letter to Congress.