To explore common protocols and/or practices that emerged in response to COVID-19, we undertook an abbreviated web search for official reports by local and state agencies from geographic distributions across the U.S.Footnote 1 We also reviewed local or national media coverage and solicited anecdotal insights from personal communications with essential employees working in policing or other juvenile justice arenas.Footnote 2 While this research design may undermine generalizability, all trends and patterns discussed herein were reported across two or more sources or modes of communication; several jurisdictions reported similar protocols, changes, or innovations in response to COVID-19.
Among the most frequently cited reactions to the pandemic was the critical need to reduce the number of youths confined to facilities. States and agencies accomplished this by simultaneously bottlenecking paths for new intakes (e.g., fewer arrests, technical violations) and clearing the way for avenues that facilitated earlier releases and increased use of alternatives to confinement. While we describe jurisdictional variations in the development and implementation of protocols in response to the pandemic, we also highlight commonalities observed across what are typically widely varying juvenile justice systems. To be sure, COVID-19 continues to present unprecedented challenges for all juvenile justice systems.
Confined Population Is Higher Risk
Juveniles, in general, are considered less vulnerable to symptoms of COVID-19 infection. Nevertheless, in order to promote proper social distancing and help “flatten the curve”, most settings where youths congregate closed indefinitely by late March (e.g., school campuses, childcare facilities). Yet, tens of thousands of juveniles remain confined and detained in facilities staffed 24/7 by rotations of essential employees. For these youths, the privilege of proper social distancing is virtually nonexistent. Worth noting, research shows that youths who are justice system-involved tend to be in poorer health and at higher risk for infection than youths who are not justice system-involved (Owen et al., 2020). For instance, a nationally representative study of youths revealed that juveniles who reported system contact in the year prior (e.g., from probation to commitment) were significantly more likely to report asthma or hypertension diagnoses than youths reporting no justice system involvement (Winkelman, Frank, Binswanger, & Pinals, 2017).
For reasons like these, juvenile advocates and justice-focused thinktanks (e.g., American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU]; The Sentencing Project) work to underscore the valid fears and concerns surrounding continued confinement of youths during a pandemic. For instance, reporting for The Sentencing Project, Rovner (2020) tracks daily fluctuations in numbers of COVID-19 testing and infections across the nation’s juvenile justice systems. As of May 15th, an estimated 415 confined juveniles and 477 employees were positive for COVID-19; similarly dated graphs of these data show infections were still on the rise (Rovner, 2020).
With many states not testing youths nor reporting diagnoses-related statistics, tracking efforts like the Sentencing Project’s highlight a consistent gap in the juvenile field: the lack of a state-by-state, national database on juvenile justice processing (Lane, 2018). Even for states with tech-savvy models that show much promise for more transparent reporting of juvenile justice data (e.g., see Florida Department of Juvenile Justice [FDJJ, 2020]), availability of new data is often lagged by months, thus, hampering attempts to report data in “real time”. Such numbers are especially relevant given the interwoven nature of the juvenile justice system, wherein changes and trends in one component (e.g., arrest numbers) will affect the others (e.g., detention numbers). As for the avenues taken for reducing confined populations, we begin with the changes to gatekeepers’ everyday practices.
Arrests & the Alternatives
Since COVID-19, officers in multiple jurisdictions confirm superiors ordering arrest be used only “as a last resort”, not only with juveniles but in all lower-level, non-felonious encounters (M.B., personal communications, May 15, 2020). A memo by the Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice [YCLJ] echoes this recommendation, requesting officers save arrest for “all but the most serious and violent charges” (YCLJ, 2020). As an example of the impact of such orders, a Massachusetts advocacy group, Citizens for Juvenile Justice, indicated in early April that juvenile arrests and calls to law enforcement about juveniles were “way down” (Fadel, 2020). Similar arrest trends were reflected across other state websites and media reports. This trend, however, is not necessarily new to law enforcement’s playbook for handling juveniles. Many law enforcement agencies, for instance, progressively expanded their use of informal diversion and reduced arrest with juveniles (outside of felony incidents) well before the COVID-19 outbreak. This sentiment was reiterated in personal communications with police officers from the Northeastern U.S. region (M.B., personal communications, May 13, 2020) and was further evidenced by the nationwide arrest reductions described earlier in this paper (e.g., see OJJDP, 2019a). As such, declines in arrest during COVID-19 will reflect, at least in part, continued momentum from reform efforts deployed before the pandemic.
Until more data are recorded and made available, the national picture remains blurry. Still, based on patterns before COVID-19, along with mid-pandemic communications and reports, we predict that the data will reveal steeper rates of decline in juvenile arrest. The most recent civil citation data provided by FDJJ (2020) support this notion.Footnote 3 Exploration of these data reveal that, from February to March 2020, law enforcement’s community-based encounters dropped nearly 9% (see Appendix Fig. 2); when law enforcement’s school-based encounters with youths are included, this same month-to-month decline was near 30% (see Appendix Fig. 4).Footnote 4 Focusing on the February to March interval over the past 4 years, such declines in community-based encounters appear somewhat unprecedented; since 2016, on average, eligible youth contacts in March were 15.1% greater than February contacts (see Appendix Fig. 1). As numbers become available from late spring, summer, and fall 2020, and when secondary educational settings reconvene post-COVID-19, these data will be especially informative if they reveal similar declining patterns.
From Confinement to the Community
With fewer arrests comes fewer youths being admitted to detention facilities. In many states, administrators and agencies have ramped up efforts to process juveniles swiftly and to divert them away from confinement. To the extent that public safety permits, the goal is to maintain youths in the community and to not detain or commit them. Advocates have similarly called on prosecutors to facilitate release rather than detaining youths (YCLJ, 2020), along with calls on probation and parole to limit (or entirely end) revocations for technical violations and further reduce the number of confined juveniles. Such options are being explored nationwide by various agencies in response to COVID-19 (National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2020). The North Carolina Juvenile Justice Division, for example, promoted using alternatives to detention for youths with minor technical violations, in aims to further reduce the number of youths confined across their state (Kees, 2020). As alternatives, diverted youths might be placed on electric monitoring or house arrest or even have detainment deferred until after the pandemic crisis has passed (Kees, 2020).
Unprecedented Reduction Rates
Preliminary data suggests that advocates’ and experts’ call for expedited reductions in the numbers of youths confined have not gone unheard. From our web search, we found several states and agencies reporting new protocols permitting more expeditious release of confined youths. Reports of percentages of youths released over the one to two-month timeframe since the COVID-19 outbreak ranged from 25% (e.g., North Carolina and Illinois), to 30% (e.g., Maryland), to nearly 40% (e.g., Maine). Results from a recent survey of a subset of agencies active in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s [AECF] Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative showed significant drops in the number of detained youths across 30 reporting states. Over a month’s time, these reductions grew out of a confluence of fewer new admissions/intakes, plus a rise in the rates at which states were releasing youths from secure facilities (AECF, 2020). In a single month, these efforts produced a 24% drop in the surveyed sample’s detained population. Prior to COVID-19, it took 7 years (i.e., 2010–2017) to achieve the same reduction in number of detained youths (AECF, 2020).
To be sure, releasing youths to the community after confinement involves a certain infrastructure that is relevant to all agencies; however, the implementation of even barebones protocols must be scaled to meet the needs of very differently sized juvenile populations. Consider, for instance, the release of roughly 20 juveniles in Maine, which marked a 38% reduction in the state’s confined population, while a 30% reduction to Maryland’s confined population requires managing roughly 200 newly released juveniles across the state.Footnote 5 The impact of release numbers like these, while warranted and in the best interest of “flattening the curve” across the justice system, will surely reverberate through agency workloads and budgets, revealing needs that are not likely addressed for the coming fiscal year. Also, as agencies release unprecedented portions of their populations at a rapid pace, this begs the question, who decides who stays and who goes? This question segues to the next topics of jurisdictional differences in a) which agencies or stakeholders actually hold the authority to release youths and b) how hurried decisions to release youths (or not) are made. These topics naturally dovetail into the related areas of juvenile case processing and juvenile courts during COVID-19.
Authority and Protocols to Release
In states such as Illinois, the authority to release youths belongs to the juvenile justice agencies themselves, meaning release decisions require no direct coordination or formal involvement with juvenile courts. This targeted authority likely hastened implementation of COVID-19-related protocols for expediting early releases. Alternatively, in Colorado, statutory authority for release decisions typically lies with the parole board. However, recognizing potential delays due to COVID-19 closures and social distancing, temporary authority was granted to the Colorado Department of Human Services [CDHS]. The executive order further requires that CDHS review all non-violent youths’ cases and release all youths deemed eligible for early discharge (e.g., see Colorado Executive Order D 2020 034, 2020). Thirdly, in other states, like Maryland and North Carolina for example, youths cannot be released without formal juvenile court involvement. Since the COVID-19 outbreak forced court closures for all but emergency hearings, this bifurcated authority has likely delayed implementation of protocols to expedite releasing juveniles from confined settings. While court dockets have largely been suspended, hearings that must occur are most often held virtually.Footnote 6 Using North Carolina and Massachusetts as examples, local departments and agencies are using tablets for virtual proceedings with “on call judges” via videoconference. To expedite releases, staff in North Carolina are reviewing and flagging cases of youths “who might be appropriate for release” before bringing the cases for judicial approval (Kees, 2020).
Regardless of jurisdictional nuances in release authority, the factors considered in determining eligibility for early or emergency release due to COVID-19 appear relatively similar across agencies. Logically, youths not adhering to their treatment plans and/or progressing programmatically prior to COVID-19 were considered less eligible for early release. Along these same lines, youths showing progress and with release plans already in place were often the first discharged. As an example, Massachusetts’ Department of Youth Services revised their protocols so that all youths were considered for early release if their projected release to community supervision fell within a 3.5-month (i.e., 100 day) timeframe. Prior to COVID-19, it was standard practice in Massachusetts that youths within 1 month (i.e., 30 days) of their projected release were considered for early discharge (Fadel, 2020). Similar “fast tracked” discharges target lower risk, nonviolent youths, with decisions most often based off of youths’ progress, risks, needs, and the system’s ability to meet those needs in the community.
During such unprecedented times, it is even more integral for decision-makers to ensure a certain level of continuity and proper aftercare services. This entails confirming that supports are not only in place but also actually available and accessible with continuing operations during the pandemic. For instance, youths should have approved living situations that are safe and appropriate for placement. A continuum of care from social service agencies and caseworkers to educational supports and reunification-reintegration services should, at a minimum, be considered prior to release.
Redistributing Versus Reducing
This is where differences in the scale of wraparound services across different states becomes glaringly distinct; providing a continuum of care for 20 versus 200 youths released in the past month requires very different levels of attention (and funding). This point also serves to underscore the fact that reductions in confined populations are not absolute reductions across the juvenile system. Rather, fast-tracked releases to community supervision simply shift the load of system-involved youths from one end to another, albeit softer, end of the system. As such, recently released youths are likely finding themselves added to already overworked community-service and probationary caseloads. Existent caseloads (e.g., probation, parole) and their supervising officers are also adjusting to changes in practices and protocols. For example, technologies allowing virtual check-ins have become integral to managing community-based workloads and an influx of new community-based clients during COVID-19.
Much like the decision-making processes for eligibility for release from confinement, similar risk-needs assessments and procedures are guiding probation and parole decisions on who and where officers/caseworkers should focus limited resources and energies (National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2020). For example, as a result of the redistributed workload stemming from reductions in confinement during COVID-19, youths making adequate progress and nearing the end of probation/parole may be phased out earlier than expected. Additional lower risk clients who are identified as having adequate alternative supports (e.g., family supervision) may find themselves with fewer probation/parole conditions to meet. As an example, in some cases, caseworkers have reduced or entirely suspended official check-ins, home visits, or drug testing for clients classified as having fewer immediate risks or needs. Such classifications of youths’ risks and needs frees up staff and resources for clients with greater risk and needs (e.g., youths recently released). This is a key consideration for agency and state administrators, as managing caseloads on the front and backends of the system entails effectively allocating resources. Such resources include active employees who are essential to public safety as well as effective rehabilitation and care of system-involved youths, but who are also equally at risk of contracting COVID-19.
It’s F***ing Chaos
To be sure, the trending push to reduce facility populations as low as possible is aimed at reducing risk for youths who remain confined in congregate settings. For those youths, and the employees who supervise them, the designs of such settings make following health guidelines and social distancing measures nearly impossible. Confined youths in some states will fare better than others, as protocols prior to COVID-19 required separate sleeping quarters (e.g., no bunking) and private bathing routines (e.g., no “gang showers”). For youths in other states, however, who are perhaps confined to facilities with more residents or run by agencies without clear continuous-operation protocols, the spread of COVID-19, once present, becomes even more inevitable.
Fatigue and Disruption
Frontline, direct care staff working with juveniles report amplified fatigue among themselves and their juvenile clientele. The astounding disruption to daily routines, schedules, or milieus is intensified by fears of contracting COVID-19; these disruptions and fears affect everyone. As such stressors become amplified by ever-changing protocols, any seasoned system administrator, staff, and even longer-term resident can foresee the impending storm of disarray. To demonstrate this point, as the numbers of staff and residents diagnosed with COVID-19 rose across Louisiana juvenile facilities, residents responded in riots and plotted (briefly successful) escapes; several involved youths were later transferred (physically moved) to other facilities throughout Louisiana (Mason & McDowell, 2020).
To be sure, juvenile facilities are most often housing youths with extensive histories of trauma and related mental health issues (e.g., anxiety and depression); thus, in order to quell the storm, a semblance of structure and continuity must be reintroduced as quickly as protocol allows. The utility of highly structured, staff-regulated milieus in congregate justice-related settings is not only directed at safety and control. Such routines, consistency in programming, and scheduled therapeutic recreational activities also serve to reduce anxieties. They provide a sense of order in what is often an otherwise off-putting and (re)traumatizing, out-of-norm setting. Unfortunately, COVID-19 continues to affect all sectors of these settings.
One particular concern is the increasing number of confined youths who show symptoms or are diagnosed with COVID-19. There are limited options for quarantining without mimicking conditions of solitary confinement; such isolation is known to have long-lasting deleterious effects on anyone, especially higher-risk youths (YCLJ, 2020). As such, many states have suspended accepting any new intakes (admissions) or allowing any transfers between facilities (e.g., California). In states still permitting emergency intakes, however, arriving youths must remain isolated for 14 days after admission. While we realize the necessity to reduce the spread of COVID-19 between residents and staff, such an experience for almost anyone, never mind a child, is surely nothing short of traumatizing.
Avoiding Staffing Crisis
A related concern, especially for administrators, continues to be if and when essential employees become ill (or quit) at rates that leave facilities understaffed. Many states implemented measures to mitigate these concerns early on. For instance, pursuant the COVID-19 outbreak, state and local non-profit agencies relaxed hiring protocols (e.g., fast-tracking background checks), reallocated budgets, and even altered shift and schedule styles (e.g., “firefighter-style” shifts of 48 h on/5 days off).Footnote 7 Again, in congregate settings, especially with juveniles, staff consistency and patience are key elements to maintaining the milieu. Shift mandates that are in the best interest of preserving employees’ stamina, patience, and general mental health are part and parcel of this balance; thus, implementing innovative scheduling structures is certainly preferable to covering absences with untrained, temporary, or ill-fitting replacement personnel.
Impacts on Education and Visitation
This “fit” is also pertinent to academic services for youths who are confined in facilities where access to teachers and formal learning opportunities were suspended indefinitely. Many agencies lack the technologies (or necessary budgets) that have rapidly emerged as the preferred alternative to face-to-face instruction. Instead, unqualified personnel are left to instruct and/or meet the very diverse educational needs of a higher-risk student population. Using New York as an example, staff were not equipped with the systems needed for remote/distance learning; thus, youths are provided with traditional paper folders and worksheets that are collected, corrected, and updated with new sheets on a rotating basis (Council of Juvenile Justice Administrators [CJJA], 2020a, 2020b). Program staff report that the substitutes for “school” are not going over smoothly and both staff and youths are growing increasingly frustrated with the changes (CJJA, 2020a). Unfortunately, outside volunteers who may specialize in instructional needs for youths with learning differences are also not permitted in facilities due to COVID-19 protocols.
Along with not allowing volunteers, we found nearly all states have also suspended visitation with family, loved ones, mentors, and advocates. Such visitation protocols are understandable given a pandemic; however, they were likely met with deep disappointment from both youths and their loved ones. Theories like social bond and general strain note the maintenance of social ties, especially family supports, as an integral element for treatment success, facilitating smoother reintegration post-confinement, and reducing recidivism (Altschuler & Armstrong, 1994). As such, if such changes were not met with alternative options like video chats or increased opportunities for email or phone use, the loss of in-person visitation almost certainly sparked fear and anxiety among residents. They are just as worried for their loved ones as everyone else. In sum, maintaining youths’ connections with the outside world is key.
Unfortunately, perhaps due to budgetary constraints or longstanding, outdated protocols, not all jurisdictions are equally accommodating at maintaining such ties. Using information from Ohio as an example, documents posted by the Department of Youth Services [ODYS] report that, in lieu of in-person visits with family during COVID-19, youths were permitted “two free, 5 minute” calls every 7 days over a 30-day period (ODYS, 2020a). A few days later a revised document was shared with families, explaining policies permitting free video chats via the Zoom platform; however, the document underscored that free “Zoom video visitation will only occur during the COVID-19 emergency response” (ODYS, 2020b). Days later, yet another letter to families announced that ODYS was “rolling out” video visitation through a private telecommunications provider, which would allow 20-min paid video visits (ODYS, 2020c).
We recognize that using mainstream platforms like Zoom or FaceTime for anything justice-related or having to do with juveniles presents data security and privacy concerns (National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2020; NJDC, 2020). However, ensuring connections to supports like family and loved ones, regardless of a pandemic, is an integral resource for youths’ development, rehabilitation, and treatment. For a state agency to ignore decades of empirical evidence of a key element for improving youths’ success is alarming. Agencies should remove as many barriers as possible in the interest of maintaining interpersonal connections; requiring payment for calls and/or video visitation, especially during a pandemic, is clearly such a barrier.