Tag Archive for solitary confinement

Rethinking Juvenile Justice: The Supreme Court Decision

US Supreme CourtLast week United States Supreme Court declared it cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile offender to life without parole. As with all of their decisions, it was met by some with complete outrage and by some as a move long-needed.

This one is based on a growing body of research, one that has influenced court decisions since around 2005. Neurophysical examination of children and youths has shown that there are very direct and physical reasons that the prior approach to juvenile justice does not work.

Ethan Bronner of The New York Times provides a bit of historical background on these prior court cases:

“What we are seeing is a very stark and important rethinking of how we treat juvenile criminal offenders,” said Marsha Levick, who co-founded the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia in 1975. “For years we were trying to convince the courts that kids have constitutional rights just like adults. Now we realize that to ensure that kids are protected, we have to recognize that they are actually different from adults.”

That sense of difference has fueled the Supreme Court decisions of the past seven years — first a ruling that barred the death penalty for juveniles in 2005; one that banned life in prison for juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide in 2010; and now Monday’s ruling that rendered invalid state laws requiring youths convicted of homicide as well to die in prison. That decision will lead to resentencing hearings for about 2,000 convicts — some of them now well into middle age — in more than two dozen states.

All of the recent rulings placed emphasis on research showing that the less-formed brains of the young make them less morally culpable and more capable of change later. So condemning them to die in prison, advocates assert, ignores key advances in scientific understanding.

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In addition to the evidence provided by the physical sciences there is also the problem of cookie-cutter justice, a “one size fits all” approach that removes judicial discretion from the picture.

Conservative writer Elizabeth Hovd on Oregon Live casts things in terms of the rights that we as a nation choose to bestow and which to deny. It’s a very interesting exercise when you consider the ages involved.

Justice is better served by weighing individual considerations than by following mandatory sentencing laws that offer no opportunity to rehabilitate people or allow them to become contributing members of society some day. If we are comfortable claiming people aren’t old enough to fully consider who to vote for before age 18 or be responsible with a beer until 21, banning mandatory life-without-parole sentencing for juveniles makes sense. Parole can and should still be denied if a criminal seems unchanged or is considered a continued threat to society.

Hovd also invokes Christian charity along with a reminder that if you do actually read the decision you’ll discover that this is not an automatic out for everyone, merely the rectification of a poor approach – one that dispenses with actual justice far too often.

It is far more important that we do what is right by victims and offenders than that we copy other countries. I would remind fellow conservatives who are also Christians that ours is a god of second chances — a god of the mulligan. Isn’t it our job to show mercy to penitent men, just as God has shown mercy? Besides, punishment and revenge have never brought back a loved one.

This ruling doesn’t offer a get-out-of-jail-free card. It does stop the legal system from treating children like adults. Children aren’t typically ready to drive at 12 or vote at 14. And children don’t magically turn into adults when they commit a horrible act.

That last point is the one that most people miss: these are children. This is one of the reasons that we produced Born, Not Raised. People need to be exposed to the narratives of the kids lost in our system. It is these narratives that humanize them.

A problem becomes much harder to ignore once you put a human face on it.

LIttle Girls in Solitary

The Girl - High ContrastSolitary confinement. A harsh penalty, and purportedly one of last resort. The type of penalty reserved for hardened, adult criminals. Or so it seems on the surface…

How would you react if told that solitary is often used for the most minor infractions, and the recipients are all too often female juvenile offenders. This is the subject of a recent piece on RH Reality Check by Yasmin Vafa of the Human Rights Project for Girls:

There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the severe psychiatric consequences of placing individuals, and particularly children in solitary confinement.  Prisoners who have experienced solitary confinement have been shown to engage in self-mutilation at much higher rates than the average population. These prisoners are also known to attempt or commit suicide more often than those who were not held in isolation. In fact, studies show that juveniles are 19 times more likely to kill themselves in isolation than in general population and that juveniles in general, have the highest suicide rates of all inmates in jails.

Every year approximately 600,000 girls are arrested in the U.S. The majority of these girls are incarcerated for non-violent offenses  such as truancy, loitering, running away, alcohol use, or violations of prior court orders for non-violent offenses. Evidence demonstrates that 73 percent of these girls are victims of some form of physical or sexual abuse. Many of them end up in these exact circumstances.

Despite all these facts, when girls in the juvenile justice system express evidence of or the desire to self harm, the typical response is to put them in solitary confinement. While these girls are being placed in solitary for their own protection, there is no consideration given to the fact that such practices deepen existing trauma. When subjected to isolation, these youth are often locked down for 23 hours per day in small cells with no natural light.  This confinement can last several days, weeks or even months, which leads to severe anxiety, paranoia, and further exacerbation of mental distress. The ACLU has reported that in certain juvenile detention facilities, girls are restrained with brutal force and are ‘regularly locked up in solitary confinement — a punishment used for minor misbehaviors as well as for girls who express wanting to hurt themselves.’

This is an especially important topic because this week, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Human Rights, and Civil Rights is holding their first-ever Congressional hearing on the issue of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. It is our distinct hope that we will see the subject of juvenile solitary confinement addressed in this hearing, as well as the other other issues faced by both juveniles and females incarcerated in the American prison system.

Recipe for a Dark Future: Kids in Solitary Confinement

Door to SolitaryAmy Fettig of the National Prison Project and Matt Simpson, of the Texas ACLU have tackled a rough topic- one to which advocates for juvenile justice should pay heed — the plight of juveniles in solitary confinement.

16 and Solitary: Texas Jails Isolate Children is their examination of this problem, and I would venture to call it required reading. Using data from a recent report,  Conditions for Certified Juveniles in Texas County Jails, by researchers at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, they provide even more ammunition in the battle to get our juveniles out of adult prisons.

Here is one key passage that I believe provides a good summation:

While in solitary confinement, children’s mental and physical health is severely compromised. The LBJ report notes the broad consensus among mental health experts that such long-term solitary confinement is psychologically harmful for adults. For children in solitary confinement, the impact is even more traumatic. Children experience time differently than adults, have a special need for social stimulation, and are damaged by forced isolation more quickly and severely than adults. It is also true that young people’s brains are still developing, which places youth at a higher risk of psychological harm when healthy development is impeded. But the psychological harm is not limited to developmental issues — it often means life or death. As the report notes, the risk of suicide and self-harm, including cutting and other acts of self-mutilation, increases exponentially for children in adult jails who are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than their counterparts in juvenile facilities.

Lives are quite literally on the line here. The difference between juvenile and adult psychology is thrown into stark relief when you look at the impact solitary confinement has on each. But that’s not all. In addition to the hazards these practices pose to the incarcerated, they also hold a dim outlook for those outside the prison bars.

Reviewing the data, the LBJ report notes ‘the impact of prolonged isolation may have mental health consequences that will make it difficult for these youth to reintegrate, and may increase the likelihood that they will recidivate.’ Solitary confinement hurts children and ultimately undermines public safety.

Once more it all comes down to foundations laid in childhood. Even though the rationale often presented is that the kids are put in solitary to protect them from the adult prison population (something that does need to occur), doing so simply damages them in other ways.

Children do not belong in adult facilities. As a matter of fact the vast majority would be better served by community programs, substance abuse / mental health aid, and other rehabilitation-oriented approaches. This is a fact proved over and over again by studies from both sides of the political aisle.

As publishers we have tried to address these issues both through our most recent book, Born, Not Raised, and through the news round-ups we present on this blog. We can only hope that by helping to put a human face on the kids behind bars we can mobilize people to make effective, and fiscally sensible, change.