Monthly Archives: March 2021

Faculty Posts

Protect Incarcerated Youth During the Pandemic

By Martha Pott, Ph.D.

COVID-19 has infected almost 4,000 youth in juvenile justice facilities since the pandemic started. What kind of facilities are these? Do juveniles need to be in them? Some are residential treatment centers for children with behavioral and emotional problems. Some are detention centers where youth who have been arrested or detained are held waiting a hearing or trial. Some are lock-ups for youth who have committed crimes. Staff who work in these centers are also at great risk; four of them have died of the virus. Most states have tried to limit the spread of the virus. A primary way they do this is by restricting family visits. This is traumatic for incarcerated youth who may be as young as 6 or 7. 

In some states, facilities have managed the spread of COVID-19 by putting youth into separate quarantined areas that are essentially solitary confinement. Although many states prohibit solitary for youth, under the pandemic, health authorities have essentially turned to it as a necessary response. Solitary confinement can be traumatic for youth and contribute to depression, anxiety, and risk of self-harm; over half of youth who commit suicide inside facilities are in solitary confinement. 

It may surprise you to know that about 70% of youth are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. And many youths are in detention centers because they have been accused of an offense but a later hearing finds that they are innocent; thus, they’ve been detained and exposed to COVID for no reason at all in terms of public safety. 

The good news is that there has been a huge decline in detained youth over the past two decades due to juvenile justice reform, by some counts, a 65% reduction from 2000 to 2018. But policies under COVID threaten to reverse that trend. 

Some states are releasing youth. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) oversees detention facilities. They have found that in some states and counties far fewer youth have been admitted and detained, e.g., Fresno County in California. But this is not true in most places. 

There are alternatives that keep the public safe. Here are some recommendations taken from three sources: The Sentencing Project, The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), and the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. 

  • Only admit youths who pose an immediate and serious threat to their communities.
  • Release youth immediately who won’t pose such a threat and can be safely treated in their homes or home communities.
  • Make it possible for detained youths and families to communicate freely and often. 
  • Protect youth from COVID during monitoring or parole by following health guidelines for distance and mask-wearing; for example, use phone or zooms for parole monitoring. 
  • States should publish their COVID numbers in youth facilities (many of these are kept secret).

COVID-19 Diagnoses in Juvenile Facilities: Known Cases
3,753 youth as of February 22, 2021.


The Annie E. Casey Foundation:

The Sentencing Project:

Stop Solitary for Kids:

Martha Pott is a faculty member in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study & Human Development. This spring she teaches a course titled: Plugging the Preschool-to-Prison Pipeline: How Incarceration Affects Children, Youth & Families.