Numbers in Juvenile Detention Drop 24% During Pandemic

Suzanne Potter | California News Service
Santa Cruz County is one of four county model sites that trains other agencies as part of the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative. Photo Credit: Unsplash

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, Calif. — A new survey of local secure youth detention centers shows their population dropped by almost one-quarter in March, as the COVID-19 crisis gripped the nation.

The survey by the Annie E. Casey Foundation said the drop is as large as a recent 7-year period from 2010 to 2017 – mostly because fewer young people are being detained. Fernando Giraldo, chief probation officer for Santa Clara County, said this proves that alternatives to detention can be pursued without jeopardizing public safety.

“The changes that are made now, hopefully they can be sustained after this,” Giraldo said. “Because if we can do it now, then why didn’t we do it before? And then also, why can’t we continue to do this?”

California has worked hard to reduce the number of young people behind bars, and has already seen a 60%-70% drop over the past decade.

Even more young people will be eligible for diversion programs if a bill proposed in January becomes law. Senate Bill 889 would raise the age at which a person is automatically tried as an adult from 18 years old to 20.

Nate Balis, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said young people have a better chance of getting back on track when they are diverted from the juvenile justice system into programs that emphasize restorative justice, addiction recovery and therapy.

“Maybe we are finally really ‘right-sizing’ juvenile detention in this country,” Balis said. “We could emerge from the pandemic with a detention population that truly is young people who pose an immediate community safety risk, rather than all kinds of young people who are not a risk to public safety.”

The survey included data from more than 300 detention centers that are participating in the Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.