By Nancy Wever, Director | Indiana Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative
Almost overnight, Indiana’s youth justice systems went from business as usual to remote supervision, virtual interactions, and attending court hearings online. What may have been considered something that would never happen six months ago did happen and will likely permanently shape the operation of youth justice systems. Those who work in youth justice systems—in addition to worrying about personal health and the well-being of family and friends, juggling new careers as teachers and childcare providers, and trying to find moments of quiet in crowded homes—were suddenly faced with serious concerns for the health, safety, supervision, and well-being of the youth they serve.
Perhaps the heaviest question is: “How do we maintain public safety while protecting youth from the health risks of confinement in congregate care settings, which may not have the supplies and space necessary to prohibit transmission of the virus?”
Guidance came swiftly from our Indiana Supreme Court, which encouraged counties to gather core stakeholders for the purpose of reviewing all who are detained and collectively determining who could be safely released to a form of community supervision. In many counties, this process included use of data and risk assessment tools. For Indiana’s 32 sites implementing the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, results demonstrated a 17% increase in the release rate from February to March.
Several counties reported formal and informal direction from courts and law enforcement leadership to refrain from taking youth into custody for minor offenses. This likely contributed to JDAI sites having a 50% decrease in average admissions to secure detention between February 1 and April 1. The reductions in the use of secure detention did not have any reported negative impact on public safety. For the youth who remained in detention, many facilities made video calls available to allow visual contact with family because in-person visitation was not permitted. Some facilities allowed for extra calls and suspended costs for telephone contact to allow connections that helped to mitigate fear and anxiety in both youth and their families.
To ensure supervision and movement of cases through the system, youth justice professionals quickly adopted technological strategies. Using various platforms, probation officers found meaningful, visual interactions with the youth supervised could take place. Several jurisdictions reported increases in appearance rates both for court and supervision appointments thanks to the ability for remote participation. Probation officers reported increased insight into the family dynamics when they can “see” youth in their home environment rather than an office setting.
In many counties, probation officers experienced a shift in their role, moving away from strictly compliance monitoring to one of support during difficult economic times by providing connections for families to community resources for food and other essential needs. This shift aligned with a pre-pandemic national movement toward probation officers supporting successful, sustainable supervision rather than overwhelmingly burdensome policing requirements.
Crisis brings change. COVID-19 has been devastating to many and has left no one untouched by its effects. Youth justice systems are in a strong position to actively evaluate forced practice changes which resulted in improved efficiencies and quality of work with youth and families. Systems should especially attend to potential disparities in the impact of these changes and determine where changes can advance racial and ethnic equity in the administration of justice.
Let’s not rebuild the barriers for youth to attend office appointments if connecting with them through video calls enhances the ability for probation officers to support successful supervision. Let’s not return to the costly use of secure detention that did not improve public safety if it can be reserved only for youth who allegedly committed acts of violence.
Indiana’s youth justice systems stepped up during this crisis. We have an opportunity to design the post-COVID-19 system in a way that promotes positive youth development, emphasizes racial and ethnic equity, focuses on supporting families’ needs, and maximizes efficiency through use of technology.