Co-authored by Marie N. Williams, Executive Director, Coalition for Juvenile Justice
"How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn't make us safer. It's an affront to our common humanity."
--President Barack Obama, January 25, 2016
"...prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored."
Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016)
Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued an important ruling on life without parole sentences for children and President Obama issued an executive order forbidding, among other things, solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. These victories for young people were just the latest in a recent wave of good news for kids involved with the justice system. With a growing national consensus that "children are different" and strong bipartisan support for juvenile and criminal justice reform, we are poised for even greater progress for justice-involved young people.
Any stay in juvenile detention or adult jail or prison has profound effects, including increased risk of mental and physical health problems, poor educational, and career outcomes and negative impacts on families and communities. But solitary confinement is particularly dangerous -- as President Obama said, solitary confinement has been linked to a host of mental health issues, including suicide. Solitary confinement is also overused throughout the country -- President Obama's editorial focused on the story of 16-year-old Kalief Browder, who endured two years of solitary confinement at Rikers Island while awaiting trial for stealing a backpack.
Kalief was released without ever standing trial, but suffered continuing traumatic stress from his experiences at Rikers and committed suicide at age 22. President Obama also refuted the idea that use of solitary confinement increases safety by calling attention to states like Colorado and New Mexico who have decreased the use of solitary confinement with great results, and enacted a number of other reforms related to solitary confinement in federal facilities based on recommendations issued by the Department of Justice.
Montgomery v. Louisiana
The Supreme Court decision, Montgomery v. Louisiana, took a previous Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama (which said that life without parole was only appropriate for crimes committed by juveniles in the rarest of cases), a step further by determining that Miller was retroactively effective. This means that thousands of people in states that were not already re-examining cases decided before Miller are now eligible to have their cases reviewed. Individual defendants like Henry Montgomery (who has been in prison more than 50 years for a crime committed at age 17) will have the chance to show that they can change and become productive, law-abiding members of society, regardless of what state they are in, or what year they committed their crime. Miller, Montgomery, and other local, state, and Supreme Court cases are also part of a growing body of case law that, based on new research on adolescent brain science and development and growing national consensus about the culpability of children, recognizes that "children are different."
This week's developments are just part of a larger wave of reform in how communities and the justice system view and treat young people, and a growing recognition that some of our past practices and policies were ineffective. There is cause for optimism in juvenile justice beyond the President's action and the Supreme Court decision on Montgomery. The U.S. Senate is currently closer than it has been in almost a decade to reauthorizing (with much-needed updates) the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, or "JJDPA", our nation's flagship legislation that sets baseline -- and some aspirational -- standards for how all young people who come into contact with the justice system should be treated. Thanks to bi-partisan leadership from Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Ranking Member Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), the JJDPA is closer than it has been in a long time to aligning itself with the most current science and knowledge about what works in juvenile justice.
There are other new, bold efforts afoot that are responsive to what's happening in the field, and across the country. For instance, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recently launched (in partnership with the International Association of Chiefs of Police and our organization, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice), an initiative to tackle the difficult but essential issue of relations between young people and law enforcement.
In his editorial for the Washington Post outlining why he issued the executive order, President Obama said that the "United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance." We submit that the President's words could be applied to juvenile justice in general; but along with many other exciting developments in the field yesterday's wins for children can lead to second chances for many more young people involved in the juvenile justice system. While there is still much work to be done, with yesterday's developments, we hold great hope for what comes tomorrow.