End juvenile solitary confinement for good; raise the age (Editorial)

“This post has been corrected to reflect the following: The original editorial incorrectly said Onondaga County was moving juveniles incarcerated at the Justice Center Jail to the Hillbrook Detention Facility in response to a federal judge’s order to end solitary confinement of teens at the jail. While the ruling put an end to solitary confinement, it did not require teens to be moved to Hillbrook. That move had been in planning between the sheriff and county executive since January, said a spokesman for County Executive Joanie Mahoney.

Thanks to a federal judge, 16- and 17-year-old youths being held at the Onondaga County Justice Center jail no longer can be put into solitary confinement. Judge David Hurd’s order is temporary while a class-action lawsuit over the practice proceeds, but the jail ought to take the court’s not-so-subtle hint and end this barbaric punishment permanently.

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The descriptions of conditions in “the box” were hair-raising enough, but photos published by Syracuse.com drove home the point. Youths were being confined to a 7-foot-by-9-foot cell for 23 hours a day; allowed one hour of “recreation” in a barren cage; forced to endure taunts and harassment from adult inmates; deprived of reading materials and schooling; and isolated from meaningful human interaction with their jailers or peers held in solitary.

Holding 16- and 17-year-olds in such harsh conditions can do lasting psychological harm to them while doing little to moderate their bad behavior, say experts for the plaintiffs. In the corrections community, the prevailing winds are blowing firmly the other way. President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prison. Gov. Andrew Cuomo created a special state prison to house 16- and 17-year-olds. Even New York City’s notorious Rikers Island has ended “disciplinary segregation” for inmates 21 and under.

In short, Onondaga County is an outlier. If we were the betting sort, we’d bet the county is going to come out on the losing end of this federal lawsuit.

The aim should be to set nonviolent juvenile offenders on a path to becoming productive adults.

Two years ago, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney agreed to end solitary confinement for juveniles at the county-run Jamesville Correctional Facility. That only shifted the problem to the downtown jail, run by Onondaga County Sheriff Gene Conway. The county planned to quickly move two of the 29 teens incarcerated there to the Hillbrook Detention Facility for juveniles, with the rest to follow.

A more permanent solution lies in the hands of the state Legislature. New York and North Carolina are the only two states that automatically treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, no matter how minor their offenses. This puts teens into lockups with adults, where they are at greater risk of sexual assault, injury and suicide, according to data cited by the governor.

In his 2017-18 budget, Cuomo proposes “raising the age” of criminal responsibility to 18, except for violent crimes, and providing appropriate education, mental health treatment and probation to youths. The aim should be to set nonviolent juvenile offenders on a path to becoming productive adults, rather than all but ensuring they end up in jail again or unable to find a job due to their criminal history. Raising the age is the humane thing to do.

There are some who feel young offenders get what they deserve, in jail and in life. This is not only cruel; it is short-sighted. No child should be treated in this way. Meanwhile, the costs of treating nonviolent juvenile offenders as adults in the criminal justice system pile ever higher for individuals, families, communities and society.”

Original link (Syracuse.com)

http://www.syracuse.com/opinion/index.ssf/2017/03/end_juvenile_solitary_confinement_once_and_for_all_editorial.html