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By Marcy Mistrett
Campaign for Youth Justice
As Washington unburied itself from the worst blizzard in nearly 100 years, juvenile justice continued to dig its way toward reform with both the judicial and executive branches making critical announcements this past Monday.
First, the US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Montgomery v. Louisiana that any child sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole is eligible for review (either resentencing or parole). Further, the Court said that any child serving life without parole – except for the rare cases where it has been found that the child’s crimes reflect “permanent incorrigibility” – is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
Montgomery reaffirms the Court's 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which created a strong presumption against sentencing a child to life without parole. "Miller," the Court said, "established that the penological justifications for life without parole collapse in light of the distinctive attributes of youth."
This decision is the 5th decision made in the past decade by the Supreme Court that clearly states that children are different from adults and deserve to be treated as such; it will impact thousands of individuals sentenced to life without parole as children.
Second, President Obama called for an end to the use of solitary confinement for youth in the federal system. After reviewing the gross overuse of solitary confinement in the federal system, the Department of Justice made 53 recommendations to reduce the use of restrictive housing in the correctional system. This includes its use for special populations, including juveniles (those under age 18), and young adults (ages 18-24).
The recommendations state that youth under age 18 “shall not be placed in restrictive housing”. They further state that in “very rare” circumstances when there is serious and immediate risk of injury to another person, a youth may be removed and placed in restrictive housing as a “cool down” period—but only in consultation with a mental health professional.
But the recommendations go farther than juveniles, and include recommendations for youth ages 18-24 that include training of all correctional staff on young adult brain development and de-escalation tactics; developmentally responsive policies and practices including therapeutic housing communities and services to reduce the number of incidents that could lead to restrictive housing; and call to limit the use of restrictive housing whenever possible, and if used, to limit the length of stay and to identify appropriate services they can receive while in restrictive housing.
Obama adopted the recommendations for the Federal Bureau of Prisons to change their policies and practices, but is also encourages the Department of Justice to use the “many tools at [its] disposal to encourage other correctional systems to do the same”. Hopefully, this will incentivize states who have yet to make such significant changes to alter their practices and end the use of solitary confinement for youth in their custody.
This leaves the legislative branch, which still has opportunity to advance juvenile justice reform this week by passing the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) through the Senate.
The JJDPA is the premier federal law that protects youth in custody. First authorized in 1974, it sets out four core protections for youth in custody including: The de-institutionalization of status offenders; the removal of youth from adult jails; the sight and sound separation of youth from adult inmates; and identifying any disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system.
Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have taken the lead on getting this bill reauthorized in the 114th Congress. After an oversight hearing, followed by a strong bi-partisan bill introduction, and a mark up that passed out of committee on voice vote, momentum for reauthorization was building.
Despite the snow, the Senate can show that it is on board with the rest of the juvenile justice reform movement and pass this bill through unanimous consent this week. If successful, we will be one step closer to achieving a hat-trick for youth justice.
Marcy Mistrett is CEO of the Campaign For Youth Justice, a national initiative focused entirely on ending the practice of prosecuting, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system.
This article has been reprinted with the permission of The Hill.