National Center for Youth Law

At the Center

Youth Justice COVID-19 Statement

As the country works to address the COVID-19 public health crisis, the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) maintains its focus on ensuring the health, safety, and wellbeing of children and youth involved in or at-risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system.

As we continue to advocate for children and youth to be diverted and removed from a harmful juvenile justice system, we have grown deeply concerned by the imminent, irreparable harm that COVID-19-related policies and practices cause system-involved youth, their families, and communities.

In addition to the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 while in congregate care, incarcerated youth are experiencing increased isolation due to the prohibition of visits from family members and community-based programs. While isolation may be a sound public health response, it causes an alarming increase in stress and measurably harms children’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Additionally, multiple court closures mean many youth face longer incarceration as courts delay hearings.

We are encouraged to hear that many counties in California are now actively avoiding incarcerating youth, including diverting youth from arrest and incarceration and examining individual cases to identify incarcerated youth who can be safely released to the community.

However, the fact that counties are taking these steps during the COVID-19 pandemic begs the question: Were some of these youth unnecessarily incarcerated in the first place? The answer demonstrates just how much discretion the system has over the lives of children and how arbitrary their decisions to incarcerate youth can be.

We are also alarmed by the lack of community resources available to support these youth upon reentry. Evidence shows that recidivism rates are reduced by almost 50 percent if youth receive sufficient wraparound services upon reentry. These services seem to mitigate the documented harms of incarceration. However, releasing youth into the community during the COVID-19 pandemic presents a heightened challenge as schools and other community-based channels for service delivery are closed or suspended. These organizations often provide the only sources of structure, stability, and care that are vital to this population, including mental health services, subsidized meals, and other social services.

Finally, the inconsistency with which diversion, release, and positive programming are implemented across California contributes to and exacerbates justice by geography. This means that some less-resourced communities lack the ability to force change.

Youth in the juvenile justice system are wholly reliant on state, county, and city policy makers to make decisions in the best interest of their health and ability to thrive in the community. It is our moral obligation to fight for youth who often do not have a voice or choice in when or how the justice system serves them. Every day that lawmakers take to deliberate is another day in which youth are being exposed to incredible harms in incarceration.

We strongly encourage the state to recognize the unique opportunity we have to remake the juvenile justice system: one that provides youth with the services they need to be successful, provides consistent services regardless of geography and avoids incarceration altogether. As the legislature thinks through the emergency response to COVID-19, it is imperative to include safety nets for young people who are most impacted by the pandemic – including youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

We join public health experts and youth justice advocates in urging the California governor, juvenile court systems, and state and local juvenile detention and correctional departments to address and mitigate the ongoing global health pandemic by swiftly implementing the following recommendations:

  • Immediately release youth in detention and correctional facilities who can safely return to their homes, with community-based supports and supervision;
  • Divert youth from arrest;
  • Stop new admissions to detention and incarceration facilities, in favor of cite and release;
  • Establish and strictly follow a COVID-19 safety plan for all youth who remain in facilities and follow CDC guidelines for correctional facilities;
  • Continue and maintain all internal programming for youth within the facilities while ensuring social distancing standards are met and guarding against the use of solitary confinement;
  • Extend phone and video conferencing privileges to maintain contact with family and loved ones and suspend fees associated with these modes of communication; and
  • Increase funding and access to technology for community-based organizations, education, and health/mental health service agencies to continue working with youth despite school closures and social distancing mandates.