Youth justice advocates in over 30 states sent letters on March 31 to push governors and court officials to release incarcerated young people and to halt new admissions in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, according to a statement from juvenile justice reform group No Kids in Prison (NKP). 

NKP states:

State advocates outlined several measures, including examining all pre- and post-adjudication release processes and mechanisms and to begin employing these as quickly as possible; removing youth who have COVID-19 symptoms or chronic illnesses, such as asthma, diabetes or other serious illnesses; and eliminating any form of detention or incarceration for youth unless a determination is made that a youth is a substantial safety risk to others.

“We believe that it’s important to do away with large youth prisons and reduce the population of confined young people. That’s extraordinarily true now and we’re in crisis mode,” said Marc Schindler, Executive Director of Justice Policy Institute, in an emailed statement. “We’re calling for the release of youth from these facilities, as well as calling to limit as much as possible contact with the justice system for young people and their families.”

Liz Ryan, CEO of the Youth First Initiative, stressed the dire nature of this health crisis and the importance of shielding our young people as much as possible. “As the country continues to address the pandemic, we cannot leave behind our nearly 43,000 young people in custody,” she said as part of NKP’s statement. “Youth prisons and detention facilities are harmful to youth under normal circumstances and are simply not equipped to protect young people should an outbreak occur.”

Nola.com reported on March 27 that three juveniles held in a Louisiana detention facility tested positive for COVID-19, which signals a future filled with more outbreaks in youth facilities across the country if action isn’t taken immediately. NKP said in an emailed statement that youth facilities are not prepared to handle the medical needs of young people during an outbreak. “Putting youth in these conditions creates serious risk for spread in the community as well,” the statement reads. 

“In the last two weeks, we have seen a number of myths come crashing down. One myth is that kids can’t get sick,” said Dr. Homer Venters, a physician and epidemiologist, said in NKP’s statement. “We have seen that this is not the case. We know that this population is made up of youth that have disproportionately higher health problems that put them at higher risk. We cannot proceed on the basis of this misconception. They can and they will get sick if we don’t do anything.”

NKP organizers say state advocates won’t rest until state and local officials do the right thing. “Kids will not be safer in these places,” said Vincent Schiraldi, Co-Director of Columbia University Justice Lab, in an emailed statement. “These facilities are built to do the exact opposite of social distancing. A storm is coming. And we don’t want to wait until the storm is here to act. We need to act now.”