Juvenile Justice Reform Remains Elusive

by Vins
Published: Updated:

Juvenile justice reform continues to be ignored across the United States, despite President Biden’s campaign pledge to close youth prisons and establish a $100 million fund for youth and communities. Shani Saxon’s Colorlines interview with a juvenile justice advocate, Liz Ryan, highlights some of the underreported issues that incarcerated children face in the United States. As Saxon writes, these issues are magnified due to the impact of COVID-19 “on the 37,000 young people currently detained or incarcerated across the country.”

According to the Children’s Defense Organization’s “The State of America’s Children 2020” report, “76,000 children are prosecuted, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults annually,” and children of color are overrepresented in this figure. Sixty-two percent of arrested children in the US are white, but children of color are more likely to be arrested in comparison to white children. Children of color make up approximately two-thirds of the population in the juvenile system with 41 percent being Black and 21 percent being Hispanic. These racial disparities continue to linger across the criminal justice system, making it more difficult for incarcerated young minorities to persevere during and after incarceration.

Political leaders often discuss mental and physical health issues—such as those arising from solitary confinement—in adult correctional facilities, yet have continued to exclude incarcerated youth in these conversations. As Ryan explains to Saxon, room confinement has increased due to COVID-19 procedures; similar to solitary confinement, this impacts youth “mental health, impacts their growth and maturity and it puts them further behind in school.”

In addition, the pandemic has made juvenile facilities a breeding site for the virus and for juveniles living in crowded housing and unsanitary conditions, rapid virus spread has been a concern. Incarcerated youth “are not getting what they need inside” correctional facilities.

There has been nearly no coverage regarding the need for reform in the criminal justice system, and even less so when it comes to juvenile justice. The issue of juvenile criminal justice reform continues to be a low priority on the agendas of either government officials or corporate media. The most recent coverage advocating for juvenile justice reform was in a Tampa Bay Times article calling for reform amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, coverage of youth juvenile facilities in local and regional outlets focus specifically on the threat of COVID-19, rather than on reform as a whole.

Source: Shani Saxon, “Juvenile Justice Advocates Call on Biden Administration to Prioritize Jailed Youth,” Colorlines, February 4, 2021, https://www.colorlines.com/articles/juvenile-justice-advocates-call-biden-administration-prioritize-jailed-youth.

Student Researchers: Winnie O’Brien, Julia Sanchez, Natalia Speedon (Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame)

Faculty Evaluator: Helen K. Ho (Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame)