Concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic among justice-involved and low-income youth: A research summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of people across the world, regardless of age, racial and ethnic background, and socioeconomic status (SES). However, some groups (e.g., people from minoritized backgrounds) are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Justice system-involved adolescents (i.e., adolescents detained in a residential facility or adhering to probationary requirements) constitute one such group who face increased risk. Despite heightened potential of COVID-19 infection, little is known about justice-involved youths’ concerns about the pandemic. In their 2022 article, Cavanagh, Clough, and Thomas examine the differences in pandemic-related concerns among youth who are and are not justice-involved.

 Method. Researchers used data from the Adolescent Social Development and Sleep (ASDS) Study and an ancillary COVID-19 interview to assess the impact of justice system involvement on adolescents’ concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. Adolescents were from one of three comparison groups: 1) youths who have had no prior justice system involvement, 2) youths who been placed on community probation, and 3) youths who have been detained in a juvenile incarceration facility. The ASDS Study is an ongoing longitudinal study undergoing continued data collection in El Paso, Texas. The additional COVID-19 interview was completed by ASDS Study participants between May 1, 2020 and May 29, 2020—after the El Paso Stay at Home order expired and before the public school year ended.Adolescents answered a series of questions about their pandemic-related economic, social, and health concerns. The authors also accounted for gender, objective social status (i.e., household income), and youth-reported subjective social status.

 Results. Differences were found between community and justice-involved youths’ concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic in two domains:

  1. Economic Concerns: Justice-involved adolescents (i.e., adolescents who were incarcerated or on probation) were more concerned than their community counterparts about finding employment. Given the high rates of poverty and unemployment in El Paso, TX, this finding may reflect adolescents feeling compelled to help out financially within their families. Moreover, the findings could reflect justice-involved youths’ concerns about whether their justice involvement would impact their future employability. Among justice-involved adolescents, youth who were currently detained in a residential facility were more concerned about food insecurity than adolescents on probation.
  2. Social Concerns: Justice-involved adolescents were more concerned about family relationship quality than were community adolescents. This finding was exacerbated when accounting for subjective socioeconomic status, suggesting that justice-involved youth who perceive themselves to be low status are most concerned about damaging their familial relationships, which they may view as one of their few sources of support.

 Although the group differences are interesting, the domains where youth were not different are also illuminating. No differences were found between community and justice-involved youths’ concerns about their relationship quality with their peers, perhaps because, regardless of justice system involvement, most of the participants experienced social isolation due to COVID-19. Interestingly, adolescents who were incarcerated did not appear more concerned than their community counterparts about contracting or dying from COVID-19. However, adolescents from families with a lower household income were more concerned about the health-related consequences of the pandemic than were adolescents from families with a higher household income. Such concerns are valid, considering people from disadvantaged communities face greater exposure to COVID-19 and higher rates of mortality associated with COVID-19. Increased concerns from youths who come from families with a lower household income may reflect an understanding among youth that, though the pandemic affects all people, it does not affect all people equally.

 Practical Implications. The findings from the study by Cavanagh and colleagues suggests that justice-involved adolescents would benefit from increased support during crises such as the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. These concerns are not limited to the pandemic; justice-involved participants also expressed greater concerns about the economic and family-related impacts of the pandemic as compared to community participants. Importantly, adolescents from impoverished families expressed greater concern over health-related consequences of COVID-19, suggesting a need for increased resources to support low-income youths’ physical health. Taken together, these findings highlight the importance of increasing resources aimed at supporting at-risk (i.e., justice-involved, low-income) youth to help avoid amplifying their vulnerabilities.

 For the full research article, see:

 Cavanagh, C., Clough, I. M., & Thomas, A. G. (2021). Concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic among justice-involved and low-income youth. Juvenile Family Court Journal, 72(4), 5-30.

 Research article author bios:

 Caitlin Cavanagh, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist who specializes in adolescents at the intersection of law and social policy. She is currently an Assistant Professor and the Associate Director for Undergraduate Education in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. More information about Dr. Cavanagh’s research lab, including a complete CV, can be found at:

 April Gile Thomas, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Her research focuses on how normative developmental phenomena, such as adolescents’ increased susceptibility to social influence or propensity toward increased sleep problems during this stage, contribute to the heightened risk-taking that occurs within this developmental period. More information on Dr. Thomas’s research lab and current research studies can be found at:

 Isabelle Clough is a fourth year Ph.D. student at The University of Texas at El Paso. Her research examines how juveniles' maturity influences their legal decision-making and treatment in the criminal justice system. More information on Isabelle’s dissertation project, the Juvenile Legal Decision-Making Study, can be found at:


 Blog author bio:

 Anna D. Drozdova is a third-year doctoral student in the Legal Psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her research interests center around social networks of justice-involved juveniles, and how such networks impact juvenile offenders’ engagement in problem behaviors (e.g., continued offending, substance use).

Share this post:

Comments on "Concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic among justice-involved and low-income youth: A research summary"

Comments 0-0 of 0

Please login to comment