“Solitary confinement for juveniles is cruel, unusual and wrong,” U.S. Sen. Rand Paul told me in an email recently. “Our nation’s laws should be focused on imprisoning the most dangerous and violent members of our society, not trapping nonviolent offenders in a cycle of poverty, unemployment, and incarceration.”
Paul is the author and cosponsor of the MERCY Act, with progressive Democrats including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Richard Durbin of Illinois. MERCY stands for Maintaining Dignity and Eliminating Unnecessary Restrictive Confinement of Youths. It aims to end solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system.
Unfortunately, the bill applies only to juveniles in federal custody. No such bill is pending in Kentucky, where juvenile offenders are held in much higher numbers than in the federal system and without uniform rules governing how the facilities can hold kids in isolation and for precisely what behavior. Kentucky remains one of 10 states that allows the use of solitary for juveniles.
Attempts at more juvenile reform by state Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, in the 2017 General Assembly session failed when Senate Bill 20 stalled in the judiciary committee. While Westerfield said banning solitary for juveniles was not part of SB 20, he also said its use should be backed up by research and data. “I don’t think you should treat juveniles like you treat adults. There is disproportionate minority contact in the system. [The juvenile justice system] treats black kids more often and more harshly,” Westerfield said.
Indeed. “Unlocking Youth,” a 2017 Juvenile Law Center report by Jessica Feierman, Karen U. Lindell and Natane Eaddy, found that the practice was discriminatory. “Despite this progress at the federal level and in a growing number of states, solitary confinement of youth remains widespread, with a disproportionate impact on youth of color (predominantly Black and Latinx youth), gender nonconforming youth, LGTBQ youth, and youth with disabilities,” the report said.
Westerfield said he plans to file another reform bill when he has enough data to convince the Legislature to make substantive changes. “The only thing I can do without a legislative requirement is to let them collect data. I want to paint a really vivid picture.”
Solitary detention for juveniles is barbaric, its application is discriminatory and it inflicts psychological trauma on kids.
It also leaves juveniles vulnerable to crimes, including sexual assault by staff and guards — while inside of prisons.
It’s time for another seismic shift in how the system treats juvenile offenders in its care.
Prior to 1967, juveniles did not have a right to counsel. The Supreme Court changed that, affirming that kids must be afforded many due-process rights adults possess, among them the right to counsel, the privilege against self incrimination and the right to confront witnesses against them. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the extension of due process to juveniles — a fine time to ban solitary confinement for them, too.
In Kentucky it took until 2002 for the state to begin providing hearings to determine if it could hold juveniles, in solitary or otherwise.
Londa Adkins, a longtime lawyer and juvenile specialist for the Department of Public Advocacy, remembers what that was like. “They were keeping kids forever without having hearings,” she said.
Can assigning lawyers to juveniles help keep kids out of solitary confinement, aka the hole?
“We don’t have a lot of accurate information about when kids are in the hole or not,” Adkins said, adding that the fate of juveniles in detention is subjective. “Some children cannot get out. They’re at the mercy of the judge or their parents. If their parents have issues of their own, that will complicate release.”
Adkins said solitary exacerbates kids’ preexisting psychological trauma.
“There are so many mental health issues. It’s cruel and unusual to even use this. I truly believe, we are so progressive in other legislation governing juveniles — nationally, we are way out front.”
New Jersey recently adopted legislation that ends the use of isolation as punishment and limits solitary confinement for reasons other than punishment.
Solitary confinement for juveniles is a cruel, if not unusual, way to dispose of children the state doesn’t value.
Let’s end it today, Kentucky.