Opinion

It’s Time to Rethink Juvenile Justice in America

For years, the United States suffered under the weight of failed “tough-on-crime” policies, finally admitting defeat over the last decade to more policies that are smart on crime and soft on taxpayers. We have learned that rehabilitation and redemption can enhance public safety, while simultaneously reducing crime rates and incarceration rates. The data shows that communities are stronger when we give people second chances. Shockingly, these insights and reforms have not always translated to the youngest among us.

More than 48,000 children are incarcerated across the United States – with more than one in 10 held in a facility for adult offenders. Imagine being a child imprisoned with adults — how terrifying it must be separated from your family and placed with strangers and know that every day you will be preyed on because you are smaller and younger and alone. The United States is also the only country that sentences children to life without parole — which means we sentence children to die in prison. And, on any given day, in either a juvenile or adult facility, children are placed in solitary confinement, isolated for up to 22 hours without any form of human contact, for a day, a month, or years.

The great human rights lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, in his book (and now recently released movie) “Just Mercy,” urges us to be “proximate to those who are suffering” because of our broken criminal justice system. Koch Industries is working with leading companies to advance policies that will reform and improve the entire system, especially for juveniles, and other businesses are bringing their resources to bear. This month, YouTube and Google are using the power of their platforms to bring awareness to the urgent need for justice through Project Witness, an immersive augmented and virtual reality experience to create immersive storytelling that deeply connects us — briefly and intensely — to what it feels like to be a child incarcerated.

Teenagers are difficult and impulsive generally – and that is under the best of circumstances. For most of the young people who become entangled in the criminal justice system, their childhoods and emerging adolescent years are marred by years of neglect, trauma, poverty and lack of any consistent structure and support. They fail to develop coping skills that allow them to compensate for these traumas, leaving them vulnerable to the influences that lead to criminal behavior. Incarceration only makes it worse. More than 70 percent of youth released from residential corrections programs are re-arrested within three years.

It’s a simple matter of equal protection under the law, no matter where we live or who we are. Consider that just three states – Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – have accounted for two-thirds of juvenile life-without-parole sentences. Furthermore, these sentences disproportionately affect African American youth, as their per capita rate of those serving life without parole is 10 times that of white children, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s, every state had a juvenile justice system, and the consensus was that children shouldn’t be held to the same standards as adults. Public opinion shifted during the disastrous tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s. In the 1994 federal crime law, children as young as 13 could be tried as adults in federal courts. Thankfully, states have rethought that immoral practice, but a patchwork approach remains.

Fortunately, states like Missouri have shown us a way forward. Today, through a combination of education and therapy programs, more than 70 percent of youth released from corrections programs in the last three years have remained out of the system. Elsewhere, community-based programs, such as the exemplary Café Momentum in Dallas, work to help juveniles develop the skills and gain experience they need to succeed upon release.

Other states have enacted additional reforms over the last decade, and the federal bipartisan Juvenile Justice Reform Act, passed in 2018, improves accountability and supports the implementation of evidence-based practices that help incarcerated juveniles and their families. The federal First Step Act banned juvenile solitary confinement in federal facilities. Despite these efforts, too many children remain subject to the practice at many state and county facilities.

There is progress. Thirty-one states already prohibit or limit the use of solitary confinement for youth in detention facilities, or the use of shackles during confinement or court appearances, and much more can be done to ensure that authorities are basing their decisions on safety, not fear. In 2019 alone, 72 bills in 33 state legislatures sought various reforms to juvenile facilities, including several that reconsider the practice, which has a particularly clear and devastating impact: depression, anxiety, psychosis and a strong correlation with suicide. We have known about this troubling correlation for years. In the 1990s, half of reported suicides occurred during solitary confinement. Unfortunately, these tragedies continue today, especially among juveniles in adult prisons.

No less heartbreaking is that 29 states still allow life without parole as a sentencing option for juveniles, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling mandatory life-without-parole sentences unconstitutional for those convicted of committing offenses as juveniles. In our view, it’s time to end these sentences entirely.

We encourage lawmakers to continue to make decisions based on what will make us all safer, as most of those in prison today will one day rejoin our communities. We know from the success of state and federal legislation like the First Step Act that it’s in everybody’s best interest to act with facts, not fear. Today’s children deserve nothing less than a second chance at tomorrow.

Mark Holden is a consultant with Koch Industries who previously served as senior vice president and general counsel.

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