Detention worst place for youth
Steven Teske, chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, has been dealing with youth in the criminal justice system since 1999. He is convinced, now more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, that every family court in the nation should avoid putting youth in pretrial detention centers.
On a typical day, 15 young people from Clayton County are held at the Martha Glaze Youth Detention Center. Today, that number stands at two. The Clayton County Juvenile Court has been using innovative methods to keep youth home with their families during the COVID-19 crisis. We began reviewing cases and releasing youth on March 13. To this day, not one has gotten re-arrested, missed a virtual meeting, or in any other way made me regret the decision to send them home.

That makes me ask two questions: Why aren’t other jurisdictions and their courts around the country doing likewise? And how can we continue these safe release practices after the pandemic has passed? A detention center is the family court’s answer to an adult jail. For the most part, it houses youth presumed innocent who are awaiting a court date. Even in the best of times, we need an extremely compelling reason to deprive an innocent person of their liberty. But these are not normal circumstances.

Because of the pandemic, my court is operating under a judicial emergency.

Much of our business is now occurring by video, but for constitutional reasons, trials cannot be conducted remotely.

Every family court in the nation should be doing its part to avoid putting youth in pretrial confinement, especially without knowing when trials will be possible. Release is often the safest course, since social distancing in institutional settings is impossible, making these places veritable petri dishes for the virus.

Moreover, detention disproportionately confines youth of color and youth in poverty.

Meanwhile, their families are already shouldering more than their share of the pain that this virus is inflicting on our society. Keeping their children away from them and in a highrisk environment heaps injustice upon injustice.

When I became a juvenile court judge in 1999, Clayton County had an average daily detention population of 62.

After we collaborated with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to remake our system to safely release more youth, we cut our detention use by more than 70%. Youth crime did not increase. Our total delinquency filings fell by 80%, with felony filings falling by 64%.

That process showed me that looking at youth as individuals with unique strengths and needs was key to helping them succeed. During the COVID-19 crisis, my staff and I are leaning into that strategy to get even better results.

In response to the public health emergency, we now have a three-person team that reviews each case to determine if that child could do well at home with appropriate supports.

That team considers the whole person. Too often, we write young people off as “serious” or “violent” because of incidents that are not indicative of their nature or predictive of their behavior. But we have to really look at kids here — not just check boxes.

The court was already proud of its Finding Alternatives for Safety and Treatment (FAST) panel, a multidisciplinary team that works with families to help youth succeed. Help may come in the form of connection to mental health treatment, or to food or housing assistance — even more critical now, as families confront the economic fallout of COVID-19. FAST moved from in-person meetings to FaceTime and Zoom, helping families access those technologies. Probation officers and myself are also regularly video-chatting with youth and families. The technology shows us that youth are where they are supposed to be, but more importantly, we can offer support and both see and hear how they are coping. While these technologies are rich in possibility, they are not high in price. Every court in the country could be using them.

As the danger of this pandemic slowly recedes, it will be critical for us to remember these lessons. If we can safely send more youth home during the highest-stress period that most Americans can remember, we can do it every day.

Our ultimate goal for the kids who enter our courtrooms is to see them thrive in their own homes, schools and communities, long after they leave us.

Removing them from these places is a bizarre and ineffective strategy to achieve that end.

My career has been a journey of discovering just how rare the incidences are when a child cannot be safely maintained in the community.

COVID-19, strange though it may seem, has propelled me farther forward on that journey than I thought possible.

And I hope never to turn back.

The Hon. Steven Teske is a judge in Clayton County Family Court.