NOEL KING, HOST:
Tens of thousands of incarcerated children have been cut off from school, recreation and the outside world during the pandemic. Some advocates hope the gravity of the situation will lead to reform that lasts. Here's NPR's Anya Kamenetz.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Last March, David (ph) was visiting his family on furlough from the Swanson Center for Youth. That's a state juvenile facility in Monroe, La.
DAVID: I couldn't do nothing, and I had to come back a day early.
KAMENETZ: Swanson called him back because of the danger of COVID-19. We're not using David's last name to protect his privacy. At the time, he was finishing up a four-year sentence that started when he was 17. Driving back, David's mother said she and his father were worried for his safety.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We try not to put our feelings on him, but, of course, you know, he knew we were upset. And we both cried when we - I mean, we, all three of us, cried when we left.
KAMENETZ: David didn't see his family again in person until he was released nearly six months later. The state canceled all furloughs home and all in-person visits due to the pandemic. And one year later, the state Office of Juvenile Justice confirmed to NPR visits are just now being restored.
HAILLY KORMAN: They were already living in the experience of quite deep isolation and removal from their families and communities. And then a number of them lost what little contact they had.
KAMENETZ: Hailly Korman is an expert on justice-involved youth at the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners. She says the denial of in-person visits combined with lockdowns and sporadic access to education and other activities appears to be widespread and ongoing in facilities around the country.
DAVID: I think it was, like, two or three weeks went by where we were just stuck in a dorm for three weeks, 24 hours a day, couldn't go nowhere.
KAMENETZ: David spent the early pandemic in his dorm bored and angry - no more rec time, no more welding classes, tensions were running high. He said, and the state confirmed, that several inmates escaped during this period. David said they ran off because they were scared.
DAVID: They didn't know what the heck to think. They're not hearing nothing but just the news. And I mean, they talk to their family every now and then, but they want to be with their family when stuff like this happen. They want to be with them.
KAMENETZ: The Office of Juvenile Justice, or OJJ, did introduce Zoom visits, but David says they weren't always available. In May of last year, families of incarcerated youth in Louisiana sued the Office of Juvenile Justice seeking their release. The plaintiffs alleged that the COVID rule changes violated young people's constitutional rights to equal protection and constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Their case failed. The Office of Juvenile Justice successfully argued that given the circumstances, they were doing all they could to preserve both public health and rehabilitation. But there's another side to this story. Hailly Korman says...
KORMAN: We've seen, across the country since last March, some real decline in referrals to the juvenile justice system.
KAMENETZ: Nationally, two different studies estimate a drop of a quarter to a third in juvenile facility populations last year. This could be because some judges did have public health concerns with putting young people in such close quarters. It could also be because where schools are in session, remote or hybrid, kids aren't getting arrested for truancy or for fighting. Korman is hopeful that this natural experiment could be a chance to crunch the numbers and find out if...
KORMAN: It was OK to close these buildings 'cause kids didn't need to be in them. And we're just as safe as we were before. That tells us something about the utility of these institutions.
KAMENETZ: That might depend in part on the outlook of elected officials, like the new New Orleans district attorney, Jason Williams. He came to office in January as a progressive, pledging to increase diversions of teenagers, alternatives to incarceration, like probation and restorative justice. But Williams also says during the pandemic, with so many teens idle, there have been more and more serious youth crimes.
JASON WILLIAMS: We've seen carjackings involving young people. We've seen car thefts involving young people. So that's the uptick.
KAMENETZ: David, meanwhile, was able to come home about a month early. That's after his victim testified in favor of releasing him. He's working in the family landscaping business now and taking college classes. His mom says he's got a bright future ahead of him. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.
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