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Opinion

Commentary: Release nonviolent juvenile offenders from custody to protect them from COVID-19

Juvenile detention facility
The juvenile detention facility in the Kearny Mesa neighborhood of San Diego, as shown in this 2012 photo.
(San Deigo Union-Tribune)

Social distancing in places like nursing homes, cruise ships and jails is difficult if not impossible. And knowingly sending thousands of people into such dangerously cramped environments for several weeks, and then returning them to their communities, should be unthinkable.

Yet, this is exactly what is happening to juvenile offenders nationwide. On any given day, tens of thousands juveniles are held in detention facilities across the country. Many are held for non-violent offenses.

Given the growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in correctional facilities, a few weeks in a detention center is more than enough time for a young person awaiting a hearing to become infected, only to carry this infection back into the community upon his or her release.

The arguments for keeping children locked up for weeks, in virtual petri dishes, for drug possession, truancy, vandalism and other nonviolent offenses, are suspect.

Over the past two decades, we have co-directed two large-scale studies designed to determine how variations in the way we respond to juvenile offending affect adolescents’ likelihood of recidivating. Both studies clearly show that releasing most juvenile offenders from institutional placement would protect public health without jeopardizing public safety.

Indeed, our ongoing research study, “Crossroads,” has followed more than 1,200 male, first-time juvenile offenders who committed minor violations, such as theft, vandalism, drug possession and fighting for five years.

Our findings indicate that punitive responses to juvenile offending actually increase rates of repeated offending, compared with more forgiving ones (such as diversion or supervised probation).

In other words, there is research to support that diverting offenders away from the justice system (and, presumably, from settings in which they might be exposed to coronavirus) is safer for the juveniles, their families and the public.

Under the best of circumstances, the widespread detention of nonviolent juvenile offenders is bad public policy that in the long run makes our communities more, not less, dangerous.

But in the throes of a global pandemic, the unnecessary confinement of these youth in settings where they are likely to be exposed to COVID-19 compounds the public safety risk by exacerbating the spread of the virus.

In the face of the current COVID-19 threat, states should immediately move all but the most dangerous juveniles out of the facilities that now house them, and place them in at-home quarantine, under GPS monitoring in their communities.

This is not just common sense but also a scientifically-informed policy that would enhance public safety and reduce the number of young people infected with COVID-19, which, in turn, will diminish the likelihood that they will transmit the virus from a detention facility into the community, endangering their families and neighbors. Doing so is consistent with both sound public health practice and juvenile justice policy.

Elizabeth Cauffman is a psychological science professor at UC Irvine. Laurence Steinberg is a psychology professor at Temple University.

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