The devastating toll that the coronavirus is taking on human life is weighted heavily on those in congregate care – nursing homes, prisons, and other institutional settings that house many people. Deaths associated with nursing and personal care homes in Pennsylvania represent 65% of the 2,292 COVID-19 deaths, as of April 30. The fear of similar outbreaks in jails and prisons has led governors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to release some people, though so far only a small number have actually been released.

In this crisis, though, another vulnerable population needs attention: youths in the juvenile justice system -- many of whom are in the system for either misdemeanors or technical violations. According to the Juvenile Law Center, in 2018, there were 7,623 detention admissions (those waiting for trial or placement) and 2,965 delinquency residential placements in Pennsylvania.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which oversees five residential placement locations, only one staffer has tested positive for COVID-19. The fact that no youths have tested positive is only indicative of the fact that only five youths in state-run institutions have been tested. Younger people are more likely to be asymptomatic. DHS could not provide the number of tests conducted in private institutions, where the majority of delinquent youths are.

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In the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center, where about 100 youths in detention either await trial or placement, two youths have tested positive. All new youths entering the system go through 14 days of isolation.

While it is true that the risk of severe illness or death from coronavirus is low for youths, it is not nonexistent. Further, because younger people are just as likely to contract coronavirus, they can spread the virus while it goes undetected -- putting facility staff, and their communities, at risk.

But the most serious risk of coronavirus is to the mental well-being and rehabilitation progress of the youths. To facilitate social distancing, all visitations to facilities are canceled and school is done through worksheets. Youths are isolated if they exhibit any symptom of coronavirus or if they were exposed. Robust testing is clearly called for.

DHS says that for now most programming continues, but that depends on staff being able to come to work. They also continue their oversight on non-DHS-run facilities.

The juvenile justice system is distinguished from the adult system because it is designed not to be punitive, but to offer supervision, treatment, and rehabilitation. Advocates have concerns -- about the extent of programming, lack of contact with the outside world, and isolation conditions. Unfortunately, trust in the system has been lost after multiple abuse allegations in residential placement facilities, like those exposed by The Inquirer at Glen Mills or alleged in a lawsuit against multiple facilities including South Mountain Secure Treatment Unit.

Three steps that would make the system safer:

  1. Ramp up testing: Without testing, youths who were exposed or exhibit symptoms are quarantined. Isolation is especially detrimental to youths -- many of whom deal with trauma and mental illness. Youths in detention don’t have the comfort of their phones, iPad, family members, or, depending on location, even their own clothes. That makes the isolation experience equivalent to solitary confinement. Testing can also prevent asymptomatic youths from infecting staff.

  2. Make testing data public: The New Jersey attorney general provides the total number of positive youths and staff tests by facility. Pennsylvania should follow and include the overall number of tests conducted in all facilities that hold youths.

  3. Release youths currently in the system: In response to coronavirus, the Juvenile Law Center, Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, and DLA Piper filed a petition with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court asking them to release all youths in the system -- including those awaiting trial in adult jails. The court rejected the petition. Philadelphia courts have been reviewing cases for release, but the Defenders Association says that there is wide variation in how much judges take the crisis into account.

Placement for youths in the system was always meant to be temporary and to keep young people safe. With the threat of coronavirus, and the inevitable disruptions in programming due to social distancing, judges should seriously reconsider the benefits of the current system. Insisting on keeping youths in custody just so that they do worksheets in a cell instead of their home is punishment, not justice.