“This is not work, a job, or even a calling for me. The importance of juvenile defense took root inside of me during the most formative years of my adolescence; in incredibly personal ways. Being a juvenile defender is who I am.”
Michelle Duprey, JD
Director of Children’s Defense
Michelle Duprey has been a staff attorney at Council for Children’s Rights since 2018, becoming Director of Children’s Defense in 2019. Before joining the Council, Michelle was an appellate attorney at the Legal Aid Society of New York City in the juvenile rights practice. Prior to that she was a trial attorney for juvenile defense for five years. Originally from Upstate New York, Michelle relocated to Charlotte with her family for a better quality of life. She is a magna cum laude graduate of SUNY Albany with a B.A. in political science and is a cum laude graduate of Albany Law School.
With cases of COVID-19 multiplying by the day, it is a matter of time before the virus enters jails and prisons holding Mecklenburg County youth. While there has been some discussion about the devastating impact this will have on incarcerated people, less attention has been paid to the most vulnerable population in custody: our children.
Mecklenburg County incarcerates many children across five pre-trial detention centers and four state Youth Development Centers (i.e., juvenile prisons). Like adult jails and prisons, juvenile facilities are inherently high-risk environments where the disease can spread quickly. Children are housed closely together in units within dormitory-style housing, precisely the kind of conditions that have led to the closure of educational institutions all over the country. Even in well-run facilities, the social distancing recommended by the CDC is impossible.
In such a setting, most of what we can do to protect against the spread of the virus is detrimental to a child’s well-being. Facilities are prohibiting visitors, meaning children cannot see their families. The use of solitary confinement, which is deeply traumatizing for a child, is likely to increase due to risk of spread, as well as, limited staffing. All of these factors not only put a child’s emotional health at risk, they also jeopardize their long-term rehabilitation.
To prevent a public health emergency within our juvenile jails and prisons, we must immediately and dramatically reduce the number of children who are incarcerated. For those who remain in custody, we must do all we can to protect their health, safety, and constitutional rights. We are fortunate, in that Mecklenburg County has always been a leader amongst the State when it comes to juvenile justice, yet we are asking for everyone to do even more during this time of crisis. To that end, the Council For Children’s Rights Defense Team will continue to argue, where it has not already happened that:
No child should be arrested for normal adolescent misbehavior.
- Law enforcement should decline to make an arrest for minor disciplinary issues. If an arrest must be made, they should take advantage of the option to counsel, divert, and release.
No child should be jailed for non-violent offenses, misdemeanors, or technical violations, including failures to appear.
- Children who are arrested should be released to their parents or guardians unless there is clear and compelling evidence that this cannot be done safely. Supervision programs and plans should be used instead of detention.
If they are detained, children should be released from detention as quickly as possible.
- Courts must continue to hold continued custody hearings, even if other court operations are suspended. These hearings must be held as soon as possible, and continue to be held until release.
Children in state custody who can return to the community safely should be sent home wherever possible.
- If children have had no problems arise during this time and have attained the highest level of success, the Department of Adult Corrections and Juvenile Justice, in conjunction with the Youth Development Centers should move to release children who would otherwise be released in the upcoming months.
Facilities must reduce the risk of exposure without compromising children’s well-being or rights.
- Allow children to have frequent contact with their family members—electronically or via phone—without limitation.
- Provide quality soap, CDC-recommended hand sanitizer, comprehensive sanitation of facilities, and quality medical care.
- Ensure that children in custody have the same access to remote learning materials as children in the community.
- Ensure children can speak with their attorneys confidentially over video conferencing.
- Develop and implement protocols to avoid spread of the virus that do not rely on isolation. Room confinement and unit lockdowns should not be used to quarantine children or to manage understaffing.
We have a shared responsibility to take care of the children of our community, especially during such a dangerous and unprecedented pandemic. If we are to have any chance at protecting incarcerated children, facility staff, and the community, we all must make this our priority.