As professionals who lead or have led youth correctional agencies, the Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice (YCLJ) advocate for the end of the failed youth prison model. To protect public health during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been encouraging jurisdictions to rapidly release youth from these facilities and to stop admissions. Around the country, we have seen systems act creatively and collaboratively to help young people return safely home.
Unfortunately, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) guidance on COVID-19 response for juvenile detention and correctional facilities does not acknowledge the good work being done around the country in order to foster replication. The statement is largely unsupported by, and sometimes contrary to, facts. OJJDP is essentially arguing that youth incarceration benefits public safety and provides a healthy and rehabilitative environment for young people. A wealth of research and our personal experience contradict both of those assertions. OJJDP cautions against early release for youth, in part on the grounds that families need access to supports and resources to help their children thrive. No young person should be incarcerated because their family is poor or in some other kind of distress. We wholeheartedly agree that good discharge planning and aftercare are essential, but OJJDP should be developing ways to facilitate those good things rather than using their absence as an excuse for the continued incarceration of youth during an outbreak of infectious disease.
We urge OJJDP to rethink its guidance, particularly where it makes substantial errors that could lead to local systems making choices that harm youth and communities:
The guidance is particularly disturbing because it ignores the lessons of the past two decades and seems to hold out incarceration as an effective tool to protect communities and youth alike. It is neither. We know that youth incarceration profoundly harms children; that youth who come into conflict with the law can almost always be managed safely in the community; that this is a better strategy to limit youth crime; that it leads to progress in academics, work, relationships and other key components of success; that youth will be safer; that community solutions save money; and that keeping youth home promotes equity.
Youth of color are incarcerated at much higher rates than white youth, though research suggests that they engage in similar behavior. At a time when Americans are intensely working to address racism in our society, it is essential that the country work toward closing youth prisons and detention centers, egregious sources of inequity. OJJDP should be expanding resources to states and communities in order to make these closures possible.
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