Diane Dimond: Juveniles and the justice system

Diane Dimond

Diane Dimond

Everyone knows youngsters aren’t mentally or emotionally equipped to make good decisions. That’s why most parents watch their teenagers like hawks.

But every year thousands of American kids get themselves into serious trouble with the law. Some of these youngsters had no prior police record. Some who entered the criminal justice system were under the age of 10. In the most dire cases, teens have been sentenced to life in prison with no chance of ever being released.

Imagine your son (or in less frequent cases, your daughter) suddenly caught up in a crime that resulted in murder, manslaughter or rape – doomed to spend the rest of their lives behind bars, perhaps in solitary confinement to keep them away from prison violence.

Two major steps were taken last week to mitigate situations that juvenilely convicted prisoners face.

President Barack Obama announced a ban on the practice of holding juvenile convicts in solitary confinement. The order only affects those relatively few juveniles held in federal prisons, but the administration hopes state prison officials will follow suit.

As part of his aggressive campaign to change the criminal justice system, Obama wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post citing the case of a 16-year-old New Yorker, Kalief Browder. In 2010, the teenager was charged with stealing a backpack and was sent to the notorious Rikers Island prison to await trial. Browder was reportedly victimized by both inmates and guards. For his own protection the boy was placed in solitary confinement – where he stayed for almost two years!

Browder never got a trial and was finally released in 2013. The trauma of having had no human contact for 23 hours a day for that long took its toll, the president wrote, and the young man committed suicide.

Imagine what solitary confinement does even to adult prisoners who have endured it for years and, in some cases, decades. Some prisoners have been held for 30 and even 40 years with no human contact, meals served through a slot in the door, a mind-numbing existence punctuated only by a few hours a month outside their small cells to shower and exercise – alone.

Human deprivation like this is known to take an enormous mental and physical toll on all age groups but especially on younger, underdeveloped minds. And many prisoners remanded to sole segregation went in suffering from acute mental illnesses that will surely never be eased by more isolation.

“How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects,” the president wrote, “and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” The answer, of course, is: We can’t.

The second major development last week came from the U.S. Supreme Court, which strengthened a previous ruling that banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. In 2012, the justices declared the practice was a “cruel and unusual” sentence to hand down to a minor whose brain is simply not fully formed. The court now declares that ban should be applied retroactively, meaning more than 2,000 prisoners who are serving life with no possibility of ever coming up for parole now at least have a chance at winning release someday.

Neither of these developments should be taken as being soft on crime. Prison doors won’t suddenly swing open and allow these convicts to walk free. Each applicant will have to convince tough-as-nails parole boards that they deserve release.

What these two new changes mean is we are moving away from the idea that we should take children, who have, admittedly, committed sometimes-horrific crimes, and automatically lock them away forever.

These are positive steps toward reforming prison policies, but we should not stop here. Congress needs to vote on comprehensive legislation packages proposed last year in both the House and Senate that are designed to alter sentencing laws (such as some mandatory minimums) that have caused a massive increase of incarcerations nationwide. I especially favor the Senate version because it includes a wide range of ideas to change the way cooperative prisoners are treated, especially the very young and the very old.

Now if we could find a way to offer truly rehabilitative programs to prisoners who will someday be released back into society, we might accomplish something. Simply holding convicts in cells for a period of time and offering no redemptive training is foolish. When prisoners are released and have no job training, no prospects and no focus in life they often either return to crime or transfer their financial burden to the public welfare rolls.

Who does that help?

Go online to www.dianedimond.com.

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