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Impacts of COVID-19 on Juvenile Justice System

As federal, state, and local governments continue navigating appropriate responses to those most impacted by COVID-19, it’s crucial to remember the significant impact had on youth who are involved with the juvenile justice system, whether they are currently incarcerated, being released, or on probation. Ill-treatment and physical, mental and sexual abuse – they are used to that. Yet, not seeing their relatives for months – how has that affected these young offenders?

Struggles of Juvenile Offenders

Youth offenders often face affective disorders (major depression, persistent depression, and manic episodes), psychotic disorders, anxiety disorders (panic, separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder), disruptive behavior disorders (conduct, oppositional defiant disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), and substance use disorders.  Given, the pandemic all these disorders have a high chance of escalating and worsening given additional tensions and anxieties imposed on them in addition to not being able to meet relatives.

The juvenile justice system is currently faced with the task of providing mental health assessments and treatment services for its youth, as there is a greater reliance on the juvenile justice system to do so. Estimates reveal that approximately 50 to 75 per cent of the 2 million youth encountering the juvenile justice system meet the criteria for a mental health disorder. Approximately 40 to 80 per cent of incarcerated juveniles have at least one diagnosable mental health disorder.

Effects of Being Unable to meet Family

Not being able to see family in person for a prolonged period can be incredibly harmful to children, said Jeffrey Butts, a research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He called it a destructive practice that prioritizes the institution’s needs over the children.

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“Responding to a virus by just excluding the community to the facility hopefully is a short-term solution,” Butts said.

At some facilities, chatting via video-conference is available, but that’s not a substitute for in-person meetings. Teens with underlying mental conditions are especially at risk because there’s no one there to help them. Specialists warn that number of teens with mental disorders in Juvenile Systems is expected to grow due to change in prisons because of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Growth of COVID-19 Cases in Juvenile System

Another challenge is the rapid growth of coronavirus cases at the Juvenile Justice System. On June 2, 47 youths and 50 workers have tested positive. That means more restrictions and extended quarantine for those associated with these facilities.  “Youth inside juvenile detention centers and residential commitment programs are continuously being monitored and screened for symptoms and if a youth becomes symptomatic, he or she is isolated from other youth, and the facility’s designated health authority is contacted,” the Florida department said in a news release Tuesday. “Youth no longer in medical isolation must show no symptoms and be cleared by the facility’s designated health authority.”

Despite all the negative factors surrounding this issue, there’s still a positive side. According to the CDC, “Nationally, the percentages of visits for ILI and CLI decreased or remained stable at low levels, compared to last week. Levels of ILI are below baseline nationally for the eighth week and in all 10 surveillance regions for the past six to nine weeks”.

When deprivation of liberty is unavoidable, children should have access to adequate hygiene, sanitary conditions, and medical services, adequate space to enable “social distancing,” and screening and testing for Covid-19 according to the most recent recommendations of health authorities. Video chat facilities should also be enabled for offenders and they should be given a chance to communicate with their relatives virtually. Children should never be isolated unless all other options have been exhausted. The threat of Covid-19 makes the virtual socialization of children all the more urgent.

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