Since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in early 2020, juvenile detention centers have been releasing minors at a higher rate to reduce crowding.   In the first month of the pandemic alone, the number of children held in detention facilities plummeted by 24% — as large of a decline as from 2010 to 2017 combined. However, white youths were being released from juvenile detention centers at a far higher rate than their Black peers during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, many youth facilities are increasingly holding almost entirely Black and Latino teens, according to interviews with more than a dozen juvenile justice officials and attorneys in seven states.

“It’s fitting that in 2020, the year that juxtaposed COVID and racial justice protests, we saw this shrinking of the system — but also a resistance to doing so for young Black people,” said Patricia Soung, a juvenile attorney and former director of youth justice policy for the Children’s Defense Fund in California.

One explanation for the worsening disparity, some juvenile justice officials told the Casey Foundation, is that with fewer juveniles detained this year, a greater portion of them have been locked up for more serious offenses, often involving guns, which teens of color are more likely to be incarcerated for, according to pre-2020 data. The severity of the charges then makes it harder to release these youths.

Other youth justice officials and experts pointed out that prosecutors are more likely to label offenses committed by young people of color as “aggravated” and to charge them with simple gun possession, making it more difficult to argue they should be let out.

Several studies indicate that the judges, prosecutors and probation officers who help decide which kids can go home are disproportionately White and tend to have greater empathy for young people who look like themselves.

Young people of color also have fewer alternatives to detention available in their neighborhoods. Lack of funding and coronavirus concerns have made social services, mental health treatment, extracurricular activities and mentorship opportunities even more scarce. Judges are less likely to approve release for teens who do not have access to such resources.

“The first beneficiaries of a downsizing system are those with somewhere else to go,” says James Bell, founding president of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, which aims to ensure racial equity in the juvenile justice system.

Read the full article about race and youth incarceration by Eli Hager at The Marshall Project.