New Report: Polling Shows Bipartisan Support for Releasing Children From Juvenile Detention Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

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As COVID-19 continues to spread and communities rush to protect the most vulnerable — including those confined in jails, prisons, and other detention facilities — new polling shows that a bipartisan majority of voters support protecting children by releasing detained youth who have less than six months remaining on their sentences. A majority of voters also favor releasing children over forcing them into solitary confinement as a response to the pandemic. 

The data, released Friday in a report by The Justice Collaborative Institute and Data for Progress, comes as the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections inside detention facilities continues to grow, and the threat to both detained people and the broader public is on the precipice of humanitarian disaster. Outbreaks inside jails are no longer theoretical. 

Like all detained people, youth in juvenile detention live under conditions that make it impossible to comply with public health guidances, like social distancing and rigorous hygienic practices. But children are especially vulnerable to the collateral consequences of being locked down during a pandemic, according to the report’s author, Samantha Buckingham, Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. 

“We are on the verge of humanitarian disaster if we do not quickly release America’s children from detention. It is not just the risk of infection—which is a mortal threat for anyone confined in juvenile halls, prisons, and camps—but the trauma of isolation as well as the loss of both education and treatment,” Buckingham said. “Keeping kids in detention is doing irreparable harm to our youth, many of whom could safely be living with their families, caregivers, and communities. Detaining kids under these circumstances will also have negative public safety outcomes in the long-run.”

The polling suggests there is shared concern on these issues, and some bipartisan agreement on how policymakers should respond:

  • Sixty percent of likely voters support releasing juveniles whose sentences end within the next six months, including fifty-four percent of Republicans. 
  • Fifty-eight percent of voters prefer early release to solitary confinement conditions imposed on juveniles during a pandemic, including fifty percent of Republicans.

The report follows a statement from the National Juvenile Defender Center, along with an open letter from Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform, urging officials to halt new detentions and release all youth who can safely return home to their families or caregivers. 

The full polling memo is available here.

The Justice Collaborative Institute is a coalition of justice reform scholars from across the nation focused on providing an academic perspective to conversations and work surrounding mass incarceration and related issues.