How COVID-19 is impacting kids involved in the criminal justice system

June 3, 2020 - Liz Schondelmayer

From school closings to social isolation to prom cancellations, there’s no question that American teenagers are being impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Adolescents involved with the juvenile justice system are facing even more unique challenges navigating this trying time.

Dr. Caitlin Cavanagh (pictured left), an assistant professor in the Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice, was awarded a grant of over $114,000 from the National Science Foundation to study how this crisis is affecting developmental outcomes for youth who are incarcerated or on probation, compared to those youth outside of the juvenile justice system. 

Looking specifically at sleep patterns and social development, Dr. Cavanagh and her collaborators at the University of Texas, El Paso, are hoping to better understand how this pandemic will affect these teens right now and in the long run. 

“For kids on probation, it can be extra difficult to access educational and healthcare resources, as many are confined to their homes and services have been suspended. For kids who are incarcerated, these resources are even more scarce, given that many facilities have prohibited outside visitors,” says Dr. Cavanagh. 

Past data has shown that justice-involved youth may struggle with higher rates of behavioral problems, sleep problems, and mental health issues than youth who are not involved in the juvenile justice system. Dr. Cavanagh is concerned that the virus may further exacerbate these disparities. 

This study is part of a larger project studying how contact with the juvenile justice system during adolescence disrupts long-term sleep patterns and normative social development. Dr. Cavanagh notes that adolescents who are incarcerated or on probation tend to have higher difficulties sleeping and fewer opportunities for positive social interactions. 

“With the additional challenges related to social interaction and sleep brought on by COVID-19, it only made sense to incorporate the pandemic into our research,” explains Dr. Cavanagh.

According to Dr. Cavanagh, youth of color are disproportionately involved with the juvenile justice system. Their families are also the ones most likely to be affected by COVID-19, as the virus has devastated brown and black communities in terms of both financial loss and physical health. “The virus is compounding many challenges affecting these communities, so it is extremely important to study how these families and kids are coping with the situation.”

Dr. Cavanagh is also hoping this study can reinforce universal juvenile justice system responses to the pandemic with quantitative research. “A lot of us, including myself, are experiencing sleep issues, feelings of uncertainty, and a shift in social interaction. By documenting these changes for justice-involved youth, we can better understand our current situation and its long-term implications for the most vulnerable.”

Keep up with the latest COVID-19 updates and find MSU community resources here.