Posted on March 17, 2021

Many Juvenile Jails Are Now Almost Entirely Filled with Young People of Color

Eli Hager, Marshall Project, March 8, 2021

White youths were being released from juvenile detention centers at a far higher rate than their Black peers during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, and young people of color have since been detained for longer than they were before the crisis, according to data gathered by a leading children’s philanthropy.

So many kids were freed from jail last year that by late summer, fewer children were incarcerated than at any point since at least the 1980s. But many youth facilities are increasingly holding almost entirely Black and Latino teens, according to interviews with more than a dozen juvenile justice officials and attorneys in seven states.


Though the racial inequality in youth detention has long been vast, it’s wider than ever, experts say. They point to several possible explanations, including bias from judges and other officials, and young people of color being detained for more serious offenses and having fewer alternatives to incarceration in their communities.


By May 2020, detention centers were releasing White youths at a 17% higher rate than Black youths, according to a monthly survey of juvenile justice agencies in more than 30 states conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. {snip}

And in the months since, while the number of White youths has remained historically low, the number of Black and Latino youths has risen slightly, said Tom Woods, a senior associate and juvenile justice data analyst for the Casey Foundation.


One explanation for the worsening disparity, some juvenile justice officials told the Casey Foundation, is that with fewer juveniles detained this year, a greater portion of them have been locked up for more serious offenses, often involving guns, which teens of color are more likely to be incarcerated for, according to pre-2020 data. The severity of the charges then makes it harder to release these youths.

This is also anecdotally supported by reports of increased gun violence among young people in Black neighborhoods in major cities during the summer and fall of 2020.

“There may be a legitimate public safety reason for a racial disparity,” said Sam J. Abed, secretary of Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services, which reduced its incarcerated population by more than half this year. {snip}

Other youth justice officials and experts pointed out that prosecutors are more likely to label offenses committed by young people of color as “aggravated” and to charge them with simple gun possession, making it more difficult to argue they should be let out.

Several studies indicate that the judges, prosecutors and probation officers who help decide which kids can go home are disproportionately White and tend to have greater empathy for young people who look like themselves.

During the pandemic, another layer of racial inequity has set in for youths of color, juvenile defense lawyers around the country told The Marshall Project. Some judges and probation officers, they said, are reluctant to release kids of color because these children are more likely to be released to a grandmother or other elderly caretaker vulnerable to extreme illness from COVID-19 — or to a single parent working multiple jobs who would be unable to supervise the teen at home during the day, with schools still closed.


{snip} Since 2000, the U.S. youth incarceration rate has been cut by well more than half, widely considered a major achievement. But as of two decades ago, White kids were locked up in greater numbers than Black kids; by 2017, more than 17,500 Black youths were incarcerated, compared with fewer than 14,000 White youths — even though only roughly 13% of Americans are Black.