COVID-19 & Justice

COVID-19 Numbers Spiking in Youth Lockups, as Juvenile Incarceration Rates Creep Back Up

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

An April survey of juvenile justice agencies in 30 states showed a 24 percent decrease in the local juvenile detention population — from 3,713 to 2,828, between March 1 and April 1, 2020, as the pandemic came into focus and government leaders took action to slow the the spread of coronavirus.

That downward trend, revealed in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s survey, continued for another month to May 1.

After falling precipitously over that two month-period, however, a fresh survey found that the number of kids in juvenile detention facilities in the U.S. had started to tick back up again — 6 percent between May 1 and June 1.

The initial beginning-of-quarantine drop was mainly tied to the cessation of admissions to lockup (which decreased 50 percent from February to May), not because of large-scale releases. Yet, the fact that most local and state governments have resisted releasing kids early so that they can be with their families during a pandemic has led to a small but still significant increase in the juvenile justice population.

This latest Annie E. Casey survey captured responses from juvenile justice agencies in three additional states, a total of 33 states. The jurisdictions accounted for approximately one-third of all youth held in juvenile detention on any given night.

According to ongoing data gathering from The Sentencing Project, at least 943 kids and 1,044 staff have tested positive for coronavirus in juvenile lockups across the nation as of July 10.

Image: The Sentencing Project

The infection numbers in youth lockups have continued to explode upward since the beginning of April. But it didn’t have to be this way.

“These data demonstrate how critical it is for juvenile justice systems not only to keep young people out of detention facilities but also to act with urgency to get young people out,” says Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group. “A more equitable youth justice system requires intense focus on releasing Black youth from detention.”

The vast majority of these confined kids are in locked correctional facilities, including juvenile detention centers, long-term secure facilities, and adult prisons and jails.

As of Friday, July 10, a total of 30 kids and 42 staff in LA County’s juvenile probation lockups had tested positive for the virus. A total of 29 additional kids were under medical observation after displaying COVID-19 symptoms and/or while awaiting test results.

While a handful of jurisdictions released a portion of the kids in their custody to protect them — and facility staff and the public — from a coronavirus outbreak behind bars, Los Angeles County and most others have not.


  • Unlike other jurisdictions in the nation, LA County typically only keeps youth that in detention that are suspected or adjudicated as having committed a very serious offense(s) or for violating their probation terms as a result of said serious offense. So understandably, there are not any to release – virus or not. Before you paint an agency by inference as uncaring about the protection of the public, might be nice to add this little detail.

  • Infection rates explode in juvenile lock ups, it’s a crisis! Death rates explode is nursing homes, not a peep from WLA… you have no credibility. Imagine what awards you could have gotten if you reported on the real crisis!

  • Taylor, serious question…
    What is it that drives you to write these stories?
    As a justice system hardliner who expects people to obey the law and, if not, serve every minute of their sentence…I don’t understand what drives the SJW mentality to let serious felony suspects/subjects back on the street.

    Celeste? Taylor? What is it?
    Does the thought of them brutalizing another person after their early exit scare you at all? Or is it worth it?
    Please respond because I’d like know.

    But spare us the inequality, baseless disproportionate stats, etc.

  • Lets see George Floyd’s death occurs the end of May. Protestors, rioters and looters commence and continue for four to five weeks. Mostly young people catching covid19 but not really getting sick. Take illness to mom, dad, grandma and grandpa over July 4. Hospitals filling up. Newsome closes businesses. Still not one peep condemning the protestors irresponsible behavior but those material girls, beach and church goers look out!

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