Home Social Justice Featured Blog: Jan. 25 was a big day in juvenile justice

Featured Blog: Jan. 25 was a big day in juvenile justice

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January 25th. Just two weeks ago. That day will probably go down as one of the biggest in American juvenile justice history.

That morning the Supreme Court altered a 2012 decision in the Miller vs. Alabama case, which ruled mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders to be unconstitutional.

This time around, the court expanded the position to make the decision retroactive. People who were sentenced this punishment can now seek parole, whereas before it was only applicable to people who were sentenced after the 2012 decision.

According to NPR’s Nina Totenberg, states can now offer parole to people who faced this sentence. In the same article Totenberg stated that this “reprieve” might very well apply “to as many as 2,000 people.”

Elsewhere, President Barack Obama made a decision that applies to far fewer people but has the potential to drastically impact more than the couple dozen lives that it applies to at this moment. Solitary confinement for juveniles is no longer acceptable in federal prisons.

Additionally, a number of other actions handed down from the White House discourages the use of the practice, encourages the use of alternative forms of housing and accommodation (specifically as a means to assist people with mental illnesses) and sets forth other improvements.

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway of Solitary Watch noted that these actions would have applied to 26 people as of December.

The case of Kalief Browder has weighed largely on the collective consciousness of those on the forefront of justice system reform. This is despite the fact that he was not being held in a federal prison. Browder was the young man who passed away at the notoriously ill-equipped and rights-abusing Riker’s Island correctional facilities. Questions still remain concerning the justification of his incarceration. There are generally a lot of aspects of Browder’s case that cast a dark shadow upon the failures of the criminal justice system.

The precedent that this case sets, and the further dialogue on matters of juvenile justice that it ignites, could make waves in the criminal justice system.

Both of these events, Obama’s order and SCOTUS’s reprieve, are impactful. Both have a chance to enhance the national conversation on juvenile justice, just like Obama’s emphasis on health care reform. Just like his address to the nation on immigration despite a reprehensible crackdown and deportations later on with immigrant families.

The Supreme Court’s decision quickly changes the precedent for courts across the land. And now, by handing down an addendum to one decision, there is no longer life without parole sentences for juveniles. That now applies on a retroactive basis as well. Proactive justice through time is essential to a criminal justice system that haphazardly locks away its citizens and for the most part throws away the key without the intent to rehabilitate.

Furthermore, such actions set forth a course of action about an ideology that the American criminal justice system has supposedly aspired to. That ideology is rehabilitative corrections, not punishing action. There has to be a proper mix of punishment and correction in the system. Incarcerating citizens is likely the most burdensome thing a state and/or can be tasked with. The right balance has to be struck.  

These steps by the executive and judicial branch are necessary to ride the tide to broader action. Should reformists be happy about these decisions? Absolutely. Is it enough? Not even close. I eagerly anticipate action that fundamentally alters the direction that this country takes for criminal punishment. For now, let’s acknowledge that the 25th was a huge day.

 


 

Here are three pieces of media that are helpful when it comes to understanding the significance of the big day of January 25th.

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