Admissions to juvenile detention facilities are down since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, meaning that fewer youth are being placed in secure out-of-home centers. The costs to maintain these facilities remain high, however.

Moving forward, states should consider a critical review of which detention center to keep open. Closing these facilities will not diminish public safety, can help young people stay healthy and can save taxpayer dollars –– which will be badly needed to rebuild our damaged economy. While health care and social distance concerns were the catalyst for detaining fewer youth, the benefits of using detention sparingly are being demonstrated across the country.

A number of states are evaluating how to decrease the number of youths who are detained in juvenile justice facilities. New York and Utah, for instance, are no longer using detention as a punishment for young people who broke a rule outlined as part of their community supervision, often called a “technical violation.” This policy shift had an immediate impact on the over 3,200 youth who have been detained for technical violations or status offenses.

States spend billions of dollars each year incarcerating nonviolent youth. But detention has not been proven to be an effective deterrent or a good strategy for rehabilitating these young people. Rather, it’s been proven that long-term economic stability is helped by limiting the number of young people in juvenile facilities. Kansas is a real-life example of this approach. Already the state is seeing the benefits of 2016 reforms that reduced juvenile detention for low-risk youth and ensured high-risk youth received the rehabilitative resources they needed.

Kansas also initiated programs to provide alternatives to confinement, which allowed certain juveniles to be diverted from the traditional juvenile justice system and into community-based programs. As a result, the number of young people placed in juvenile correctional facilities dropped by 24% between 2015 and 2019.

In a relatively short period of time, Kansas successfully cultivated a safer community by embracing the idea that young people who complete diversion programs are less likely to commit another crime. Other states should take notice. By reducing the number of young people being sent to juvenile detention facilities, states can redirect funds to community-based programs, divert state funds to help rebuild broken economies and keep our young people out of detention facilities and with their families.

Decreasing juvenile detention can also help relieve some of the racial bias that is plaguing our justice system. Racial disparities in the juvenile justice system begin with an arrest and continue with every subsequent step. Of those arrested, Black youth are more likely to have their cases heard and adjudicated in a court rather than being diverted pre-adjudication into a rehabilitation or community program.

What’s more, of those cases that are decided by a judge, Black youth are more likely to be sent to a juvenile detention facility rather than a period of probation. As Joshua Rovner of the Sentencing Project points out, “the arrest disparity is the entrance to a maze with fewer exits for African American youth than their white peers.”

Keeping youth in their communities rather than in detention facilities is far better for the young person, the community and the economy. Currently, most states dedicate the majority of their juvenile justice budgets to detention facilities and other out-of-home placements, despite high costs and ineffective results. Detaining fewer youth in detention facilities can not only protect those young people from the dangers of COVID-19 but also can begin to correct the systemic racial bias in the youth justice system.

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