COVID-19 has proven that detaining our youth is a choice. We can choose better.

We are well over nine months into this public health crisis, and youth are still being detained and incarcerated at juvenile and adult facilities across the state and nationwide. Since the start of COVID-19, the number of detained youth in Connecticut has steadily gone down — not because we are releasing more youth, but because our state leaders have made the intentional decision to increase the use of diversionary practices. In other words, we are actively choosing not to lock up young people. 

In normal times, detention and incarceration are ineffective, costly, traumatic, inhumane, racially-biased, and damaging. During COVID-19, they are especially dangerous. As of this September, more than 1,800 incarcerated youth and over 2,500 staff from facilities across the juvenile justice system have become infected with the virus. 

The root of the issue is that prison doesn’t reform or rehabilitate, it suppresses and it causes harm. Even short stays in incarceration and detention centers can have lasting, negative impacts on youth. 

For a young person, a stay in a detention or incarceration facility is associated with worse general health, including stress-related illnesses and obesity. Youth who are incarcerated are less likely to complete high school and more likely to be incarcerated later in life. Detaining youth also impacts their mental health.  It is common for a young person to develop posttraumatic stress disorder and depression after being released from incarceration, and stays in detention increases their risk of self-harm. Formerly detained youth also have less professional success, which can be tied directly to their lack of educational attainment. In all measurable ways, our current system sets our young people up on a continued path to failure. 

It’s frustrating to know, many youth in the justice system could have avoided it in the first place if they had been provided with support instead of punishment. In conversations with system-impacted youth, they cited economic insecurity, housing insecurity, and lack of equal opportunity among the many issues that impact how likely a young person is to be pushed into the justice system. These system drivers disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic youth — and youth of color, especially Black youth, are likely to be treated more harshly once in the system. Alarmingly, the majority of youth in the juvenile system are battling mental health or substance-abuse issues. When a young person lacks community support, secure housing, economic stability or access to treatment and mental health services, we are all but assuring that if they do not receive the help they need they will end up in the system. 

And stays in detention and incarceration do not get at the root issue of what has caused a young person to make poor and potentially dangerous or damaging decisions in the first place. It does not set them up on a path to making better decisions in the future and it does not repair harm to any person that may have been negatively impacted. It only seeks to punish. In fact, in many cases, young people do not need interventions for their behavior – because the adolescent brain is still developing, “most young people age out of crime on their own.” What our youth need are opportunities, resources and someone to support them in their growth and development. What it really boils down to is having the opportunity to succeed or being denied that opportunity.

We cannot increase public safety, reduce crime, and build a world where all young people have the opportunity to achieve their potential, unless we address the root causes of youth criminalization and build systems that work to prevent future offences.

For these reasons and more, we must implore our state leaders to take steps to release youth in detention and incarceration and invest instead in non-prison-like environments, community-based services, rehabilitative services and restorative justice. Youth don’t need or deserve harsh punishment. They need resources, love, and assistance so that the root of the issues that cause damaging actions, no longer have the power to dictate the behavior of our youth. 

The added risk due to COVID-19 only increases the urgency with which we must act. This crisis has highlighted both opportunities and failures within our systems. Incarcerated youth, since the start of COVID, have faced restrictions on visitations and family support, extremely restricted educational opportunities, limited access to services and probation officers, and the increased use of solitary conditions, usually reserved as a punishment, to curb the spread of the disease.

In terms of opportunities, the increased use of diversionary practices has proven that we just don’t need to be locking up young people. There are alternatives to detention if we choose to use them. What is disappointing but not surprising is that these practices have primarily helped white youth. The majority of youth still being held in detention or incarceration are Black and brown. Due to the unaddressed racial and ethnic biases that are key features within our systems, white kids benefit more than their Black and brown counterparts. We can’t treat prisons and detention centers as the way to deal with wrongdoings and then be surprised when change doesn’t happen, especially when all people aren’t held to the same standards of discipline. We need these diversionary practices to aid all youth, without bias, and not just during a pandemic.

I’ve learned, as many do, that growing up comes with lessons, mistakes and growth. Reform cannot happen in places where freedom is suppressed through practices of constant punishment. All children deserve an equal opportunity to live safe, healthy, and fulfilling lives, but in a state that arrests children as young as 7 and regularly transfers youth as young as 15 to adult prisons, we must work to shift our systems to prioritize the well-being of young people.

We set our young people up for failure when we don’t invest in providing them access to resources or opportunities to thrive.

Connecticut spends, on average, $750 per day to incarcerate a young person. That’s $273,7500 to lock up a kid instead of investing in their success. A recently released Connecticut Voices for Children report examined the cost of detaining youth in Connecticut, and how by decreasing the frequency we detain youth, we can save money and reinvest those savings back into services that prevent justice system-involvement in the first place. 

I have seen fantastic mentoring programs that establish trust and relationships with young people and then they’re cut. These programs work, we just have to fund them. Let’s fund them with the money we save when we stop locking up youth.

We have a choice to make. We can either choose to continue using an ineffectual system that irreparably harms the young people that pass through it, or we can choose to implement systems that prevent young people from entering the justice system in the first place, and works with system-involved youth to overcome behaviors, repair harm, and set them up for future success. I hope we choose our youth.

Jordyn Wilson the Community Connections Associate for the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.

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