How to limit the impact of COVID-19 for justice involved youth?

The Play

Create policies to limit the impact of COVID-19 for justice involved youth.

Who Can Do This?

Juvenile justice officials, detention facility administrators, state agencies, elected officials, and state court systems create and implement these policies. Child advocates have issued best practice guidance and can advocate for improved policies for justice involved youth. In addition, everyone who interacts with the juvenile justice systems can advocate for these measures.


This will vary by state and the method used to achieve policy change.

The Problem it Solves

Putting in place proper responses and protocols to deal with the threat of COVID-19 in juvenile justice systems is critical for protecting the health of detained youth and the health of the greater community. Outbreaks in prisons and detention facilities often spread infectious diseases to the surrounding community. Detention facilities are crowded places that make prevention efforts difficult, if not impossible. Reducing the population of detained youth is one of the only solutions to effectively prevent infections within a facility. Detained youth are also more likely than their peers to have pre-existing medical conditions, such as asthma, that make them more susceptible to COVID-19. Juvenile detainees are also more likely than their peers to suffer from mental health disorders, and require increased psychological support, information-sharing, and continued contact with family and relatives. It is therefore critical that juvenile justice officials take the following measures:
1. Reduce the population of detained youth 2. Establish plans, policies, and practices to prevent and mitigate an outbreak 3. Educate staff and detained youth, and provide them with needed supports

How to do this

1. Reduce the population of detained youth

A. Release and prevent incarceration of youth charged with low-level offenses or technical violations
  • Discourage new arrests, particularly for non-violent offenses
  • Use summons and citations in lieu of arrest
  • Work with prosecutors to advocate for release of detained youth
  • Communicate with probation authorities to halt the issuance of warrants for probation and parole violations
  • Eliminate fines and fees, particularly in light of widespread current unemployment
  • Lower bail amounts and set bail amount of $0 for lower level offenses
  • Conduct renewed bail hearings due to “changed circumstances”
  • Prioritize juvenile detention hearings to ensure they are held within the time required by state and federal law
  • Petition that any individual who has not been charged with a violent or serious offense is entitled to a rebuttable presumption of release
  • Conduct review hearings during the pendency of the COVID-19 emergency with findings made on the record as to whether continued detention is appropriate or warranted
  • Provide emergency funding to community-based organizations for monitoring, increased mental health services, and other diversion programs and services to safely divert more youth from incarceration
B. Release and prevent the detention of medically-vulnerable youth
  • Discourage the booking and detention of medically vulnerable youth
  • Prioritize the immediate release of detained medically vulnerable youth
  • Consider whether detained youth suffers from pre-existing conditions that renders him or her more vulnerable to COVID-19
  • Consider whether the facility in which the juvenile is detained is able to address medical issues or needs
  • Consider the juvenile’s existing health conditions, and conditions existing at the anticipated place of confinement, in setting conditions of custody
  • Supplement applications for early release with documentation to give decision makers medical guidance and emphasize need for release
C. Release offenders early whose sentences are almost complete
  • Review all detained juveniles’ cases to determine if there are sentencing options other than confinement, including home confinement
  • Identify detained juveniles with less than 60 days remaining in custody to permit early release, with or without supervision or community-based treatment
  • Allow juveniles serving sentences for less than 60 days to move to have their sentences revised or revoked
  • Accelerate time credit calculations
  • Increase eligibility parameters for mental health diversion programs
  • Discharge kids on probation and aftercare who are doing well. These programs require families to come to offices - often via public transportation - and wait in close quarters with others

2. Establish policies and practices to prevent and mitigate an outbreak

Follow the guidance of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) on managing COVID-19 in detention facilities. These organizations recommend doing the following:
  • Develop a Covid-19 Response Plan that includes staffing plans, plans for stocking sufficient PPE, plans for any shortages of PPE, and communications plans for sharing information with youth, staff, and outside partners
  • Ensure there is sufficient hygiene supplies, cleaning supplies, PPE, and medical supplies within the facility. Ensure that all staff and youth have proper access to these supplies, and that they are appropriately used as needed
  • Implement intensified cleaning and disinfecting procedures according to CDC recommendations
  • Reinforce healthy hygiene practices, and provide and continually restock free hygiene supplies throughout the facility
  • Use a CDC-informed screening tool and temperature checks for all people entering detention, as well as staff, to identify people with possible exposure and those at higher risk of infection
  • Implement social distancing strategies to increase the physical space between detained juveniles (ideally 6 feet between all individuals). Follow CDC recommendations for social distancing in detention facilities
  • Reassign staff who are at high risk for infection to duties that minimize their contact with others

3. Educate staff and residents and provide needed supports

  • Develop clear messaging, training, and education for both staff and detainees on COVID-19 symptoms and prevention
  • Continue programming, classes, jobs, and recreational activities for youth, including remote activities or distance learning
  • Ensure continued connections with family and loved ones. Provide free phone and video calls, and continue in-person visitation where possible
  • Allow for unsupervised phone calls and video conferences with attorneys
  • Provide increased mental health supports to detained youth, particularly those with mental health disorders, as the COVID-19 situation may be particularly stressful or traumatic for these youth

Who Is Doing This?

Several states have already undertaken these measures. For example, the Governor of Michigan issued an executive order eliminating any form of juvenile detention or residential facility placement for juveniles unless that juvenile is a substantial and immediate safety risk to others. South Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice asked that family court judges allow youth to be returned to their community while waiting for disposition, if they could safely do so. Courts in California, Indiana, Maryland, and Iowa have all issued guidance recommending some or all of the above reforms.

Relevant Resources

  • Center for Disease Control, Interim Guidance on Management of Coronavirus Disease 2019 in Correctional and Detention Facilities (March 23, 2020) – link
  • World Health Organization, Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention Interim guidance (March 15, 2020) – link
  • Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform, “Statement on COVID-19 Risks for Detained and Incarcerated Youth” (March 22, 2020) – link
  • Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, “Recommendations for Youth Justice Systems During the COVID-19 Emergency” – link
  • Michelle Deitch, “Recommended Strategies for Sheriffs and Jails to Respond to Covid-19 Crises” (March 20, 2020) – link
  • Vera Institute, “Guidance for preventive and responsive measures to coronavirus for jails, prisons, immigration detention and youth facilities” (March 18, 2020) – link
  • Stuart A. Kinner et al., Prisons and Custodial Settings are Part of a Comprehensive Response to COVID-19, The Lancet Public Health, Volume 5, Issue 4, 188-189 (Apr. 2020) – link
  • California Supreme Court Guidance related to COVID-19 Pandemic (March 3, 2020) – link
  • Committee for Public Counsel Services v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court, Mass. Supreme Court (April 3, 2020) – link
  • In the Matter of Administrative Rule 17 Emergency Relief for Indiana Trial Courts Relating to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) (Ind. Apr. 3, 2020) – link