From Supreme Court to the White House, US rethinks juvenile justice

On the same day the US Supreme Court declared life sentences for juvenile offenders unconstitutional, President Obama banned solitary confinement of young inmates in federal prisons.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
A computer shows fingerprints from a juvenile offender booked at the Juvenile Detention Center in Toledo, Ohio, on January 8. Ohio has taken steps to end solitary confinement for juvenile offenders. On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama announced that federal prisons would also end the practice for juvenile offenders.

US federal prisons will no longer hold juveniles or low-level offenders in solitary confinement, President Obama announced on Monday, the next step of his plan to make the criminal justice system "smarter, fairer, less expensive and more effective."

"The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance," Mr. Obama wrote in an op-ed published Monday in The Washington Post, citing high rates of self-harm and recidivism among inmates who have been held in solitary. 

The change will impact about 10,000 prisoners held in federal jails, where the practice of keeping young inmates in solitary is already rare: only 13 cases were reported between September 2014 and September 2015. However, inmates are commonly placed in solitary confinement for nonviolent offenses, which will no longer be permitted. The rules will also limit the time federal inmates can serve in solitary, changing the current 365 day maximum in federal prisons to 60 days for a first offense. 

The reforms reflect growing attention to juvenile offenders, and how they should be punished for their crimes. On Monday, the Supreme Court declared juvenile offenders as "constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability" in a ruling against life sentences without parole for inmates who committed crimes as juveniles. Life sentences without the possibility of parole constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" for teens, the justices said in a 6-3 decision. The high court had previously declared executions of juvenile offenders to be unconstitutional.

The ruling acknowledges that "even people who commit the most horrific crimes in their youth may someday grow and mature into individuals entitled to regain their freedom," as The Christian Science Monitor's Warren Richey wrote Monday.

Similar concern for inmates' rehabilitation underlies Obama's new rules on solitary confinement, which are in line with a Department of Justice report issuing new "guiding principles" for the use of solitary in federal prisons. The extreme isolation of solitary, where prisoners may be held alone for up to 23 hours a day, often causes difficulty readjusting to the outside world, making it even more difficult for freed inmates to find jobs and reunite with family. 

"How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?" Obama writes. "It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity." Quoting Pope Francis, he suggests that unnecessary solitary stays are a violation of each person's "inalienable dignity." 

Many prisoners with mental health issues are kept in solitary confinement, where their conditions often worsen; higher suicide rates are also correlated with solitary. Obama's reforms will also improve treatment for mentally ill inmates, and increase the time inmates in solitary confinement will have outside their cells each day.

But the rules will impact only a tiny fraction of inmates in US prisons, as it only applies to those held in federal prisons. In 2014, 80,000 to 100,000 state prisoners were confined in solitary housing, according to a 2015 report from The Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA).

Multiple states are beginning to limit it, however, and early results point to lower recidivism. Illinois, Oregon, New York, California, Ohio, Arizona, and Mississippi have all begun to limit or ban the practice, particularly for teens.

"We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives," Obama writes. "And if we can give them the hope of a better future, and a way to get back on their feet, then we will leave our children with a country that is safer, stronger and worthy of our highest ideals."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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