Over the past few years, states and localities across the country have made huge policy and practice changes to keep people safe in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes youth justice agencies, many of which pivoted away from incarceration because of the increased health risks it posed to young people and staff. During that time, we saw that even beyond safety from COVID, less incarceration was the better approach. Yet, now in the third year of the pandemic with no end in sight, we are seeing youth prisons and jails filling back up. We can’t let fatigue set in and shift back to old habits that never worked in the first place. Now is the time to lean in, take stock of lessons learned over the past few years and figure out how to fundamentally transform youth justice.

The Urban Institute just released a brief funded by the Youth First Initiative highlighting efforts in three states — Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey — to shift away from incarceration and invest in more effective, cost-efficient strategies to help young people take responsibility for their actions while providing support and services in their home communities. Each one took a unique approach to policy and practice change, successfully reducing the number of kids behind bars by 39 to 60%. 

In New Jersey, following the advocacy of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and other groups, the state took steps in three areas to help youth. It quickly tested all of its youth for COVID-19, being the first state to do so. It enacted the Public Health Emergency Credits Bill, providing for the early release of youth. And lastly, New Jersey enacted a bill that will provide wraparound services to youth through restorative justice hubs that will service areas most impacted by youth incarceration. In the first year of the pandemic, the state’s population of youth committed to the state or waived to criminal court dropped by 39%.

The Maryland and Massachusetts stories are different but the outcomes were the same. An order from the chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals directed courts throughout the state to limit the use of incarceration, which was consequential in shifting the way youth legal services were administered, reducing reliance on incarceration. In Massachusetts, the Department of Youth Services leveraged opportunities under existing law to accelerate release for incarcerated young people and strengthened reentry planning and support, which bolstered judges’ confidence in returning youth home ahead of schedule. The two states reduced youth incarceration by 47 and 60%, respectively.

Despite this progress, we must remember that youth incarceration continues to disproportionately impact youth of color, and that trend is getting worse. Black youth make up about 15% of the population of young people in the United States, yet 41% of youth in placement are Black. Nationwide, Black youth are four times as likely to be incarcerated as their white peers. In New Jersey, they are nearly 18 times as likely to be locked up, the worst racial disparity in the nation. In each of the three states Urban studied, the proportion of incarcerated youth who were people of color increased during the pandemic, disproportionately bearing the brunt of the negative effects we know incarceration places on young people. Moving forward, transforming youth justice must include effective strategies to reverse racial and ethnic disparities in youth incarceration.

The public narrative around violent crime also threatens momentum for youth justice reform. Despite recent coverage, data reviewed by the Sentencing Project found that violence among youth under the age of 18 did not increase during the pandemic. This aligns with what we’ve always known to be true: locking up children does not improve public safety and is wholly ineffective at reducing recidivism, with statistics showing that 70 to 80% of youth are rearrested within a few years. The carceral state doesn’t reduce crime but instead perpetuates trauma and hardship for our youth. The three states’ proven efforts in reducing the number of incarcerated youth show more effective forms of progress in mobilizing social, emotional and mental health support for young people in their communities.

Further, while we saw declines early in the pandemic, youth incarceration populations are creeping back up. Recent upticks in social unrest and crime in communities across the country are stoking old fears and threatening to reverse progress made over the past couple of decades, even though incarceration remains the wrong solution. For example, with the positive announcement to close two of New Jersey’s youth prisons still unfulfilled, New Jersey’s Youth Justice Task Force released a report recommending the state replace the state’s three youth prisons with three new ones. This would perpetuate the state’s reliance on incarceration and move New Jersey’s efforts in the exact opposite direction of progress. Instead, some advocates on the task force have dissented and are urging New Jersey to replace its current youth prisons with smaller homelike centers in renovated buildings in communities that are close to youths’ homes, providing more of a healing and rehabilitative space for youth. 

New Jersey — like many states across the country — is at a pivotal moment, and it would be a shame to squander the lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic. Now is the time to lean into what we know works: addressing the root causes of crime, closing outdated and ineffective youth prisons, and investing in real community safety.


Samantha Harvell is a Principal Policy Associate for the Urban Institute.

Yannick Wood is Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.


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