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COVID-19: Another Reason to End Youth Incarceration

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has added a new and urgent justification for ending the harmful, ineffective and expensive practice of locking up youth who are in conflict with the law.

Youth in custodial settings are at great risk of exposure to a highly contagious virus. Probation personnel, facility staff, attorneys, youth and others enter and leave these facilities every day, increasing the risk of contagion. Youth detention centers and prisons are notoriously unsanitary environments, and the young people confined in these settings have no means to employ the practices necessary to protect themselves. There is no feasible way to implement “social distancing” as a means of limiting exposure without subjecting youth to prolonged isolation and depriving them of contact with their attorneys and their families and loved ones. Where courts are closing, youth are detained for longer periods. Where courts continue to operate, youth are transported to hearings in close proximity to other youth and staff, further increasing their risk of exposure. Adults who are required to “shelter in place” in the comfort of their homes are experiencing high levels of anxiety, fear, and stress. Imagine the terror and trauma experienced by youth behind bars who are powerless to protect themselves and are separated from their homes and families.

The dangerous conditions caused by the pandemic add additional justification for the growing movement to end the practice of incarcerating youth who are accused of violating the law. According to the YouthFirst campaign, youth incarceration “isn’t safe, isn’t fair, doesn’t work and can’t be fixed.” On any given day, up to 50,000 youth are incarcerated in the U.S. LGBTQ youth, youth of color and youth with disabilities are significantly overrepresented among youth behind bars. While secure confinement is demonstrably harmful to all youth, some youth are more jeopardized than others. Incarcerated LGBTQ youth, for example, are at elevated risk for mistreatment, bullying, physical and sexual abuse and extended placement in “protective isolation.”

For these reasons, there is growing bipartisan consensus in favor of replacing youth prisons with treatment and rehabilitative services for youth and their families. Several states have closed large youth prisons, and county probation agencies have begun to close local detention facilities. A national movement to redirect public funds to community-based supports for youth and families has gained significant momentum. Advocates, families, and policymakers propose a public health approach designed to meet the complex needs of youth in conflict with the law rather than punishing them by locking them up.

Just as the LGBTQ community organized and rallied to fight the HIV epidemic, we must step up to protect those in our community who are most vulnerable during this unprecedented pandemic – including the countless LGBTQ youth who are currently detained or incarcerated. Youth advocates across the country have sounded the alarm and we must amplify their recommendations. We must insist that youth justice agencies immediately release youth who pose no risk to public safety, including youth who are confined pre-trial, for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies, for probation violations or simply because there are no available placements. The longer these youth remain locked up, the greater their chances of contracting the virus and exposing their multigenerational families when they return home. When youth are released, they and their families must receive verbal and written instructions, as well as necessary supplies, to facilitate the safest possible reintegration. Justice personnel must work closely with the child protection system to provide safe housing and health care for youth – including LGBTQ youth – who cannot safely return home or have no home to return to. For youth who remain locked up, facilities must take the necessary measures to address hygiene and safety, as well as the mental health and emotional needs of youth who must live through this pandemic while separated from their families.

We are only beginning to comprehend the magnitude of the crisis created by the coronavirus. As our families and communities struggle to respond, we are required to radically alter our routines, behaviors, and expectations. In future years, we will distinguish the time before the pandemic from the time afterward. As with previous disasters and upheavals, we will permanently alter many of our policies and habits. Ideally, the insight born of tragedy will lead us to adopt compassionate responses to human frailties. We should embrace the growing trend to promote public safety through prevention – by creating a continuum of community-based services designed to meet the complex needs of struggling youth and their families. Perhaps one day we will look back and wonder why we ever thought that youth incarceration was a good idea.

Shannan Wilber, Esq. is the Youth Policy Director for NCLR and leads the efforts to elevate the most vulnerable LGBTQ youth across the country and advance policies to promote their safety, inclusion, and well-being. Shannan launched the Equity Project in 2005, a collaboration of NCLR, Legal Services for Children and the National Juvenile Defender Center, and the first national initiative to promote equal and respectful treatment of LGBTQ youth in the juvenile justice system. She was recently awarded the Juvenile Law Center’s prestigious 2020 Leadership Prize. 

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