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Psychology Grant to Address Youth Confinement Amid COVID-19

Smart Public Policy that Addresses Inequality

Drexel's Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab


June 5, 2020

Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab

Correctional facilities have emerged as hotspots for the spread of COVID-19, and confined youth face an increased risk of COVID-19 infection. Given the overrepresentation of youth of color in correctional facilities, the disproportionate infection and mortality rate of COVID-19 among communities of color is compounded for these youth.

A new Rapid Response Research grant will bring together a team of researchers in Drexel University’s Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges to inform alternatives to confinement for young people caught in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The $95,000 grant is awarded jointly by the William T. Grant Foundation and the Spencer Foundation with the goal of leveraging research for smart public policy that can positively impact the lives of young people.

About the Lab

Drexel psychology professor Naomi Goldstein, PhD

Psychology professor Naomi Goldstein, PhD, is director of the Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab and principal investigator of the grant. For more than two decades, Goldstein has collaborated with community stakeholders to use social science research to improve juvenile justice policy and practice to produce better outcomes for youth and communities, with efforts focused on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, restructuring juvenile probation systems, protecting youth rights during police contacts, and reducing racial and ethnic disparities within the justice system. She is a professor of psychology and co-director of Drexel’s JD/PhD program in Law and Psychology.

“Many judges are eager to release youth from justice facilities during this pandemic to protect their health and the health of staff who work with them,” says Goldstein. “However, these judges are, of course, concerned about public safety if a youth they release reoffends, particularly with violence.”

Psychology professor and co-investigator Kirk Heilbrun, PhD, ABPP, has conducted grant-supported research on forensic mental health assessment, violence risk assessment, and risk-reducing interventions since 1994.

The researchers will synthesize and use research to help judges across the U.S. safely release youth from juvenile and criminal justice facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To respond to this challenge, Goldstein and her team will review research on:

  • the consequences on youth outcomes of justice-system decisions at the initial detention, disposition/sentencing, and transfer to criminal court stages;
  • the impact of these decisions on racial and ethnic inequality;
  • and the resources needed to facilitate release from confinement, safely return youth to the community, and prevent both COVID-19 infections and subsequent violent offenses.

Goldstein and the other researchers have committed to synthesizing the relevant literature within an abbreviated timeframe of six to eight weeks. The swift, systematic review of existing research is designed to ensure that the questions guiding the synthesis are responsive to real information needs of decision makers.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges will use this synthesis to help judges and other decision makers understand when and under what conditions they can safely prevent youth from being confined or release already-confined youth. The partners will engage in the development of training materials and resources to provide guidance for justice system decision making and implement an advocacy plan involving messaging and technical assistance for organizations and individuals working in juvenile justice.

This project also aims to apply the research synthesis and engagement plan to justice system decision-making post-pandemic to maintain reductions in youth confinement, and to establish response strategies for future emergency situations at local, state and national levels in which youth cannot be safely confined.

“In partnership with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, we can help judges make informed decisions about how to safely release confined youth from justice facilities without endangering community safety, says Goldstein.”

The cornerstone of the Rapid Response Research grants program is collaboration between researchers and policymakers. Both the Drexel research and policy partners will develop an engagement plan to ensure that the research yields action.