Recently, New York State‘s prison system became the largest in the nation to announce work on reforms intended to limit or eliminate solitary confinement as a punishment against prisoners younger than 18, as well as mentally disabled prisoners and pregnant women.
While this might be viewed as a “progressive” move in the U.S., the rest of world certainly considers it a piecemeal approach, wondering why more has not been done.
In fact, did you know that America and Somalia are the only UN member nations that have yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child? When comparing these two countries in terms of economic, social, and political advancements, no logical reason exists why the U.S. has not yet ratified the convention.
This treaty, which defines a child as a person below the age of 18, sets up guidelines for governments when assessing their social services, legal, health and educational system as well as levels of funding for these services.
The convention also asserts that “children who break the law should not be put in prison with adults; should not be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without possibility of release; and should be able to keep in contact with their families.”
In 2008, President Obama said it was “embarrassing” that the U.S. had not yet ratified the treaty. Nevertheless, six years into his presidency, ratification still seems to out of reach. Let me tell you why it shouldn’t be “out of sight out of mind” for Americans.
Would Ban Solitary Confinement In All States
Solitary confinement, which is defined as “the most extreme form of isolation,” is often used to punish inmates for breaking rules by “physical and social isolation in a cell for 22 to 24 hours per day.”
“Being in a room over 21 hours a day is like a waking nightmare, like you want to scream but you can’t….I developed techniques to survive. I keep a piece of humanity inside of that can’t be taken away by the guards….There is no second chance here.” Lino Silva’s experience while being held in a solitary confinement.
Reports have shown that minors are “psychologically unable” to handle solitary confinement and that more than 50% of the suicides of children held in juvenile facilities happen when they are isolated alone in their rooms. More than 60% of minors who killed themselves have had “a history of being held in isolation.”
Most developed nations are well aware that solitary confinement is not only harmful and inhumane, but also useless in “deterring” behavior. But several states in the U.S. continue to use solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for minors and at least 10 states have no time limit on confinement.
If the U.S. signed the treaty, this practice would be banned because this is rightfully considered “cruel” treatment of children.
If Children Don’t Deserve a Second Chance, Who Does?
Every year, roughly 250,000 juveniles are tried in adult courts annually and nearly 100,000 youths are placed in adult jails and prisons.
Almost 2,500 juveniles are currently serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole, while about 8,000 are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole for offenses that happened before they turned 18. Some were as young as 13 when they committed their crime.
The U.S. is still the only country in the world willing to allow its citizens to die in prison for crimes they committed as minors.
But American lawmakers are not oblivious to the numerous reports and scientific evidence showing that minors still have a developing brain and should thus not be treated as adults.
This realization explains why in the 2005 Roper v. Simmons case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to ban the use of death penalty for juveniles. And in 2010, in the Graham v. Florida case, the court said minors should not face life in prison without parole for crimes other than homicide. Note, however, that the court also said “a state need not guarantee the offender eventual release, but if it imposes a sentence of life it must provide the young offender with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.
In 2010, Shimeek Daquiel Gridine was 14 when he committed attempted murder and 15 when he was sentenced to 70 years in prison. Sadly and equally disturbing is the fact that Florida seems to believe that 70 years in prison provides a “realistic opportunity to obtain release” for Gridine, especially for a crime other than homicide. And his case is not the only one.
Finally, in the 2012 Miller v. Alabama case, the court declared “a judge or a jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.” Basically, the court argued that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles under 18 was unconstitutional, violating the 8th Amendment. However, this decision never banned all life in prison for minors. Nor was the court clear whether or not their decision applied retroactively.
Currently, at least 15 states haven’t eliminated mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, while states such as Florida have ruled that the Miller Case was not retroactive, suffocating any hope that inmates might have had for an early release.
But if the U.S. ratifies the convention, they would not only be forced to end this practice, but ultimately reduce or release inmates who have spent years in prison for crimes they committed as children.
Vulnerable, Yet Not Lost Causes
In the U.S., almost 70,000 minors are held in a juvenile correctional facilities on a given day and youths caught in the juvenile justice system suffer from mental health disorders at a “rate that is more than three times higher than that of the general youth population.” At least 75 percent of those caught in the juvenile justice system have experienced “traumatic victimization.”
Article 27 of the treaty highlights that children “have the right to a standard of living that is good enough to meet their physical and mental needs.” Unfortunately, the U.S. takes a different approach.
While minors can be confined in different types of facilities, the majority of non-violent youth offenders end up in long-term facilities operated by either state governments or private companies — the latter having expanded significantly in recent years. This despite the fact youth incarceration is not only more harmful, but less effective in terms of recidivism and saving taxpayer money.
In 2010, the juvenile incarceration rate was 295 per 100,000 youth population, one of the highest among developed nations. The rate in Finland, for example, was 0.2 per 100,000 youth population and 4.1 per 100,000 youth population in Sweden.
While the U.S. focuses more on punitive practices, Finland’s and Sweden’s low incarceration rates can be attributed to their community-based approaches, emphasizing “cross-professionalism,” integration of knowledge and skills across the juvenile justice system and “welfare-based prevention of juvenile crime.”
Most people who take the wrong path in life often have a troubled background and were failed by systems that were designed to assist them.
A 2013 report by UNICEF shows that child poverty in the U.S. remains one of the highest in developed countries. The report also revealed that the U.S. ranks extremely low compared to other nations in terms of children’s health and safety, behaviors and risks as well as education.
If a country continues to take away funding from educational and social systems intended to provide children a better life while emphasizing a prison nation, what kind of outcome can you really expect?
Now, some are afraid that ratification would allow the treaty to become “superior to all other state and federal laws,” when it comes to children’s rights.
But that’s exactly what should happen because arguably the current laws do little to protect the youth while doing even less to further develop and strengthen this nation.