Juvenile delinquency dropped during pandemic
But report finds that racial disparities grew
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC’S disproportionate impact by race has been well-documented in areas including health outcomes, remote work, and education. Now, add one more disparity: juvenile justice.
A report released Wednesday by Massachusetts’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board found largely good news when it came to juvenile delinquency. During COVID, far fewer teenagers have been coming into contact with the juvenile justice system.
There was a 62 percent drop in monthly new commitments to Department of Youth Services facilities and a 40 percent drop in overnight arrest admissions. Fewer juveniles were being detained and fewer were on probation.
Some of the reduction is due to a concerted effort by state officials to keep kids home during the pandemic, rather than taking them into custody. Some of it is due to circumstantial factors. Teens were less likely to be around peers who pressured them to cause trouble. There were no school-based arrests when schools were physically closed.
Perhaps most striking is the problem of a “small but significant” group of young people described in the report who were stuck in detention for longer than necessary because of pandemic-related delays in the court system. On average, youth remained in detention 19 days longer during the pandemic than before the pandemic. The report says that these young people were disproportionately Black and Latino, although it did not give exact numbers.
The report points out that juvenile justice does not occur in a vacuum. Black and Latino families were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with factors that put youth at increased risk for delinquency. Financial stress affects children’s well-being, and surveys show Black and Latino families were more likely than White families to be worried about their economic security. Disengagement in school also creates a risk of delinquency, and data show that Black and Latino students were far more likely than White students to have missed at least 10 days of school last year.As Massachusetts recovers from the pandemic, the report says the risk of future delinquency is high. Many children are dealing with trauma, mental health issues, a lack of social activities, strained family circumstances, disengagement from school, and substance abuse.
The report makes recommendations for addressing these issues – continuing to divert teens out of the criminal justice system, supporting community-based services and social programs, increasing the availability of mental health and substance treatment, and supporting delinquency prevention programs in schools. The challenge will be directing these services to the Black and Latino youth who are clearly most in need.