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Open Access Publications from the University of California

COVID-19 and California’s Detained Youth: Vulnerable and Overlooked


The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented and ongoing calamity, laying bare the vulnerabilities of California’s public health and emergency response systems. Although youth confined in juvenile detention facilities are among those at highest risk of suffering from the effects of the virus, the plight of these young people has been largely invisible to the public and overlooked by the state. This article describes the unique dangers posed by the coronavirus to youth incarcerated in county-run detention facilities in California. It summarizes the policies and procedures necessary to protect the health and well-being of detained youth based on the recommendations of public health officials and youth justice stakeholders nationally. It then describes the county and state agencies whose coordinated action is essential to respond to COVID-19, the efforts of the authors and other California advocates to urge these government stakeholders to implement essential health and safety protocols, and the obstacles and challenges encountered. Those efforts met with a range of responses ranging from lack of certainty about authority to act to non-responsiveness.  As a result, California failed to provide systematic guidelines for releasing youth from custody, proactively oversee conditions in detention facilities, report data in meaningful ways, or respond to concerns and complaints from youth and families. The article, finally, draws on the experiences of the past year and a half to offer recommendations for the systemic changes necessary to prepare for the next pandemic or similar public health emergency.

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