Good News for Juvenile Justice Reform

By Joan Neal
January 27, 2016

Monday, January 25, 2016 was a double-header for kids in the U.S. criminal justice system, with compassion and justice winning the day. First, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana,held that its 2012 ruling banning life without parole for children must be applied retroactively.This time, Chief Justice Roberts reversed his earlier position against the ban and voted with the majority. Now the U.S. will no longer be the only country in the world that jails kids and throws away the key.

Thousands of prisoners sentenced as juveniles prior to the Court’s original decision, will be able to request a review of their sentences and have a chance for parole. Pope Francis has called for an end to all life sentences, calling life imprisonment a “hidden death penalty.” Additionally, numerous studies have shown children lack the maturity and judgment of adults, and both their capacity to act responsibly and their ability to reform increases with age. With this decision, the Court aligns the law with existing scientific evidence, real life experience, and basic respect for human dignity.This is a major step in ensuring fairness and compassion in the juvenile justice system.

Second, on the same day, President Obama issued executive orders banning the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. Responding to a Department of Justice study regarding the use of solitary confinement by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, President Obama observed, “The practice of solitary confinement in the federal prison system is overused and has the potential for devastating psychological consequences.” The president’s orders also provide relief to prisoners who are typically subjected to solitary confinement for committing “low-level infractions” and expand access to treatment for mentally ill prisoners.

Traditionally, as a nation, we have not been concerned with how prisoners were treated once they were incarcerated. Clearly, we should care. Many studies show a link between isolating prisoners and an increase in rates of recidivism. The stories of prisoners held in solitary confinement who have developed mental illness or have taken their own or other’s lives once released from prison should serve as cautionary tales.  As the president said, “It [solitary confinement] doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”

All justice-seekers should applaud and support the momentous juvenile justice reforms announced this week. It is admirable that the judicial branch and the executive branch have made these changes. But where is Congress? It’s time for Congress to enact comprehensive criminal justice reform.  Call or email your Senator or Congressional Representative and demand that they pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123) and the Sentencing Reform Act (H.R. 3713) in the House.  When that happens, compassion and justice will have truly won!

Society should hold offenders accountable for their misdeeds. But surely our hearts are big enough to do that with compassion and mercy. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”