Democrats Seek Answers From Justice Department on Juvenile Detainees Amid Virus Crisis

A group of Democratic senators wants to know what, if anything, the Trump administration has done to help state and local juvenile justice agencies comply with basic standards of care for youth locked up amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Kamala Harris of California, joined by 14 Democratic colleagues, issued their lengthy list of questions by letter Tuesday to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. While the Justice Department does not hold any minors in its own facilities, this small corner of the Justice Department oversees federal juvenile justice policy and administers grants to states in exchange for compliance with basic standards around locking youth up.

Citing a “lack of transparency” regarding how juvenile facilities have responded to the pandemic, the senators asked federal officials to publicly detail “information about how incarcerated youth are being kept safe during the pandemic and how facilities have prepared to respond to COVID-19.” 

The letter asked Administrator Caren Harp to respond by June 12.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Administrator Caren Harp.

As of October 2017, there were almost 44,000 young people in juvenile facilities, and about 4,000 in adult facilities, the senators wrote. They noted that about 500 youth and 500 staff are known to have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in lockups — “alarming” rates of infection in a setting where social distancing is difficult or nearly impossible.

The letter raises 16 questions about what guidance and assistance the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has provided to state and local authorities on how to manage the disease, and to provide youth with the educational, rehabilitative, health and legal services they are entitled to. It pointedly seeks data on how many incarcerated youth have been tested, how many are positive, and whether death or hospitalization has occurred in any cases. 

The senators also asked Carp for a racial and ethnic breakdown of infections within juvenile detention facilities, noting: “Because the majority of youth in detention are Black or Hispanic, the spread of COVID-19 within juvenile detention may further perpetuate the disparate impact of the virus along racial and ethnic lines.”

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention did not respond to a request for comment.

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